Palo Alto: James Franco’s Atmoshpheric Dystopia

Considering author and director James Franco’s idiosyncratic ways, gives me permission to start my Palo Alto blog with an analogy; that even beginning this review is like trying to mount a gigantic marshmallow…what the hell should be my form of attack?

As I skulk around the marshmallow, deliberating, how about a ‘fun fact’? (an expression that has evolved in a justification for random commentary): did you know that the charter city Palo Alto was named after a large redwood tree “El Palo Alto”?

And a-ha! Now I tricked you, marshmallow, into my first mini rant of the film; two delinquents saw down a 200 plus year old tree and there’s zero repercussions?! I know, I know, it’s ‘just a movie’, but heaven forbid there’s some numb skull who thinks Twain thought the n-word was cool and that harming nature is condoned.
One more old lady type comment: Gee, am I glad I came of age in the 70’s and 80’s when parents still took pride in knowing their kids’ whereabouts and took a stand on curfews and behavior. Remember the shaming voice-over spoken ominously before the late news: “It’s 11 o’clock do you know where your children are?” Time to bring that phrase back, my friends. Because the only difference between ghetto kids running wild, the street urchins of Oliver Twist days and these California hipsters, is the I-phone they all own.
Now the positives:

Palo Alto, the film, makes me want to read Palo Alto: Stories the James Franco book. I want to know the resolution to one of the many strands left untied; for instance, whether the blonde with the McDonald’s ‘over one million served’ fellatio reputation attempts suicide, since movie sections allude to this (cyber bullying against her, a voice over that intimates a gang bang). So if anything Gia Coppola’s screenplay is the unique feat of being a 100 minute book trailer.

Two more pluses: atmosphere and sex scene originality…

Palo Alto had intense atmosphere, not nearly as good as another recent film Under My Skin did, but still the dreamy soundtrack blanketing visual montages helped create a hallucinatory cushion to the sinister undercurrent of self-medicating pain that all of the teens are feeling.

As for the pivotal sex scene between coach and student, an eclipse-like shade that recurrently slides across Emma Roberts’ face (the student) as she folds into the shadow of James Franco (the coach) intensified the moment symbolically. We understood that her ‘light’, aka virginity, was given up to the ‘dark’, emphasizing the importance of this moment in a young woman’s life.

As I plant my spear in the top of the marshmallow*, “Palo Alto” is a sad commentary on modern culture using interesting cinematic tricks and ‘toast-worthy’* acting performances.