“Without doubt, there would be no need for faith,” says Professor Pohlmann at a pivotal moment in Douglas Sirk’s 1958 drama, A Time To Love And A Time To Die. Pohlmann is played by Erich Maria Remarque, author of the novel upon which A Time To Love was based. The statement isn’t a summary of the film’s themes; instead, it complicates them, framing a wartime love story—set during World War II, and told from the German perspective—in religious terms.
A little less than halfway through Palo Alto, teenage April (Emma Roberts) gets help with her history homework from her soccer coach, Mr. B. He tells her that history just means explaining why things happened. “I do things all the time for no reason,” she counters. “It’s because you’re young,” says Mr. B. “You don’t know why you do things, but there’s always a reason.” Mr. B is played by actor/permanent grad-student James Franco, the author of the short story collection upon which Palo Alto is based. His response is a thesis statement, instructing the viewer on how to interpret the behavior of the characters. At this point, the movie can end.
Though it might seem unfair to compare a late masterpiece by a Hollywood great with a crowd-funded indie debut, Sirk excelled at precisely the thing Palo Alto reaches for: revealing reasons and motivations his characters didn’t want to express. And though director Gia Coppola isn’t working on Sirk’s scale, she’s no slouch, either. Yes, she’s the granddaughter of Francis Ford Coppola, the niece of Sofia and Roman Coppola, first cousin once removed of Nicolas Cage and Jason Schwartzman, grandniece of Talia Shire, and overall a member of the closest thing American cinema has to a titled aristocracy. But her work here exhibits an identity of its own, characterized by purposeful close-ups and slow ’70s-flavored zooms. Her sense of visual composition, which betrays a Gus Van Sant influence, ensures that Palo Alto remains interesting to look at even as it runs out of ideas.
Not that there are many. For the most part, Palo Alto consists of cyclical behavior: Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val) ambles through parties and community-service gigs, occasionally answering hypothetical questions pitched by his buddy Fred (Nat Wolff); April pines for single dad Mr. B while babysitting his son; unhelpful adults—parents, college advisors, drug counselors—drift in and out of the teenagers’ lives. Senseless or repetitive actions are emphasized: Teddy scratching a name into a bench, Fred crashing his car into the wall of a parking lot, various acts of vandalism. It feels authentic (Coppola even manages to make a poster for The Virgin Suicides fit in), though not real. It recalls a Harmony Korine movie, minus the freak-show vibe; there’s even a Korine-esque daydream sequence, wherein Teddy imagines himself as Where The Wild Things Are’s Max.
Coppola works mostly in shallow-focus one-shots; she frames the characters in three-quarter profile with plenty of headroom, which creates the impression that every angle is a portrait. It also suggests a camera removed from the subjects’ perspective. But to what end? In distancing itself from its disaffected characters, Palo Alto evokes only more emptiness—and emptiness has a habit of being dull.