James Franco is a fascinating character. With his chiseled good looks and bedroom eyes, he is genetically perched for sex-symbol status, and certainly Hollywood yearns to dip him in those spangled shallows. But Franco, as part of Seth Rogen and Jason Segel’s Freaks and Geeks mob, resists the most earnest superfluities of celebrity; his artistic talent is tempered by self-deprecation and suspicion, which keeps him on his toes — witness the masochistic pleasure he takes in ripping his reputation in This is the End. A pretty boy with chops and smarts, Franco has more in common with River Phoenix than James Dean, and like Phoenix he keeps one foot in the door (Spider-Man, Planet of the Apes) and the other one in the gutter (Spring Breakers, Sonny).
Franco is co-producer, co-writer and co-star of Palo Alto, an adaptation of his short-story collection of the same name. The film is directed by Gia Coppola, niece of filmmaker Sofia Coppola and granddaughter of Francis Ford, who gave us Apocalypse Now and the Godfather movies, and cousin of Jason Schwartzman, another Freaks alum; as they say, it’s a family affair. An atmospheric meditation on the limbic pain of teenage drift, Palo Alto takes its cue from everything from Dazed and Confused to Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers: It is moody and narcotic, and it substitutes the formal framing of environment for narrative propulsion. In other words, it is compelling but imprecise.
As a high-school soccer coach and single dad who seduces April, one of his players (played by Emma Roberts), Franco is appropriately charming and creepy, a soft-soap predator whispering words of love. Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val, who’s also in the film) is quietly in love with April, while also in thrall to his best friend Fred (the excellent Nat Wolff), a bad boy mired in sexual confusion.
Like her niece and grandfather, Gia Coppalo is a filmer of moments — dreamy, impressionistic sequences that are interesting and gorgeous to look at, but which leave psychology on the surface of things. Palo Alto is an admirable film about the anomie of suburban youth, and it contains passages of exquisite beauty, but it’s not as good as it strives to be. It seeks to depict the druggy, sexed-up confusion of kids, but in the end it falls prey to a kind of surreal romanticism, all shadows and fog.