Not to place two films with distinctly different goals up against one another, but we do live in a world where you could feasibly argue that Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Tree of Life are about the same thing. All is fair game for comparison, though my shoehorning Palo Alto and The Fault in Our Stars into the same discussion is almost purely based on proximity. They’re both about teenagers encountering their own life-changing obstacles, though some realized in less broad terms than others. The Fault in Our Stars is about kids with capital-C cancer, and all their issues and responses are derived from that basis. Palo Alto is about… well, teenagers. If you wanted to focus it into a specific, the destructive recklessness that possesses nearly every teen at some point. It’s strange which film comes across with greater severity given the stakes.
Of course The Fault in Our Stars comes with limiting demands already, based on John Green’s publicly adored novel of the same name. It’s the kind of film that would fail if the director was allowed to distinctly interpret the book. It needs to be close enough to what each fan interpreted reading it, meaning it has no right to a distinct vision. Heaven forbid, it risks displeasing the ardent and fiercely controlling fans. Palo Alto, meanwhile, comes from source material that demands to be taken in a different direction: a series of short stories written by James Franco. However faithful or unfaithful debut director Gia Coppola was to the source material is a non-factor for the audience, particularly given the degree to which she shapes it to her distinct style. Distinct may seem an odd choice of word for a film that has visible traces of Gus Van Sant and Gia’s aunt Sofia Coppola in its DNA, but there’s something carefully altered about her work here. A touch less macro than Van Sant, but a bit more outwardly expressive than aunt Sofia.
Which is not to embarrass Josh Boone’s work on Fault in Our Stars by comparison, but his direction of the film is barely of note. Everything’s shown with a plain, pretty-gloss complacency, not actively ugly, but not ever aesthetically appealing. There’s one of the key faculties of cinema neglected, which is only an issue if the drama isn’t consistently involving, but up to a point, there’s little dramatic tension at all. It’s all very kind and inoffensive and determinedly cute, though Ansel Elgort’s Augustus can’t help coming off creepy at first intense, smug glance. We warm to him, but he’s never particularly consumed by internal or outward conflict. He’s cocky, confident, with little of the anger that should seem necessary for a film about terminally ill adolescents.
Same goes with Hazel, who ostensibly should get a pass because of how sweet Shailene Woodley is onscreen, but she’s given less gravitas moments her than in the still desperately nice The Spectacular Now. She’s not had much expertise with deeply frustrated and tormented characters yet, the action shift with Divergent not at all changing her image as the sweet, cute girl. Even as her character’s supposedly dying, she’s shown with as much glow as the camera can add, her breathing tube even looking more like a cute necklace than a lifeline. Nothing can be allowed to block her sweetness, to it’s hard to see her as this potentially gangly misfit with no friends. It’s one distraction in a film that feels no need to mitigate any of them. If her parents have jobs, we never know them, nor can we fathom where their upper-middle class income comes from. Same goes with every character on this film’s roster. Nobody lives in a shabby home. Cancer never destroys the family’s expenses. We’re in a fantasy bubble of what life-and-death trauma is like.
White privilege is assumed off the bat for Palo Alto based on the title location, but that allows them no safety net for their “You Only Live Once” actions. Heightening the intoxicating haze of those actions is the distinct imprint of a world we live. Fred, our most worrisome character whose emotionally violent outbursts hint at some kind of unseen abuse below the surface, talks early on about going on a mass killing if he were bound for suicide. It’s indicative of the empathy-smiting tunnel vision unique to young people without an understanding of the world outside themselves, and it’s a tunnel the film literally depicts to send the message the rest of the way. It’s easy for films about teenagers to be patriarchal in attitude, and what they often do to avoid this is give those teenagers stalwart confidence in their own lives, as in The Fault in Our Stars. That kind of entirely justifiable self-confidence is a fantasy, and Palo Alto conveys both the allure and the consequences of its characters’ exercise of personal freedom.
The parental units are barely more responsible. James Franco’s smarmy, aloofly predatory soccer coach is our most constant reminder of adult privilege masking the perversion of their own tunnel vision, but he’s not alone. April’s (Emma Roberts) parents are introduced as unhelpful and mostly selfish, either in Val Kilmer’s openly demeaning rewriting of April’s paper, or her mother’s quiet, cozily faked interest. A scene with Fred’s father Mitch (Chris Messina) implies an abuse of the boundaries between adults and adolescents. Every spare moment with an adult reminds us how they have no right to the condescension they place upon their younger counterparts in obvious and subtly persuasive ways. “You’re young. You don’t know why you do things, but there’s always a reason,” Franco tells April at a pervy study session.
The closest The Fault in Our Stars comes to flashing a critical eye at older generations is when Hazel and Augustus meet their favorite author, played ably by Willem Dafoe. An evidently volatile drunk with no sympathy for the young fanbase that loves his book – John Green certainly makes himself seem quite the charmer by comparison – his scene is the closest the film gets to becoming a Lars von Trier movie. The key difference (aside from grueling masochism, sexual mutilation, remotely inspired musical cues) is a refusal to ride the characters’ emotions up and down. The film insistently drives moods in their necessary direction, particularly in a dismally flat sequence comparing Hazel’s struggle to that of Anne Frank. Holocaust history has rarely been utilized for such treacly metaphor.
Obviously The Fault in Our Stars is not out for the same things as Palo Alto, but its simplest failure is its absolute unbelievability, particularly from a film that starts out with the pledge not to sugarcoat it. We never feel the desperation of families ripped apart and lives with a short charge before fading into oblivion. The most indicative statement comes towards the end when Hazel says funerals are “for the living”, and therefore should be an uplifting affair. The Fault in Our Stars exists solely for the quaintly living, and it’s hard to imagine any young cancer patient relating to Hazel’s ideally financed, barely downward spiral. When characters die, it doesn’t quite register with the gut punch it’s supposed to, particularly after the whole film’s been telegraphing the oncoming death from a mile away.
Hopscotching back to Palo Alto, then, the telegraphing of oncoming events is markedly less broad, though it is admittedly present. A moment alone with James Franco tells us exactly where it’s headed, and that’s the film’s most serviceable element. Coppola’s really allowed to stretch her craft elsewhere, particularly in an interior monologue scene viewing a promiscuous girl’s sexual impropriety through the dominating gaze of her expectant male partners. The way Coppola handles this feels like a necessary strike against an almost universally condescending culture of slut shaming.
The way some of Palo Alto‘s scenes play out with wince-worthy deliberation – April’s bathroom breakdown is a key moment where Coppola’s intent is so obvious it risks invalidating it – reveals Gia Coppola’s relative inexperience as a director, but she’s counters that by bringing a lot of true teen experiences to the screen without a whiff of dishonesty. Much more gratifying is its lack of condescension, like it’s shaming or poking fun at teen guilelessness. Though The Fault in Our Stars never judges Hazel or Augustus for positive worldviews, it feels entirely reliant on their refusal to really challenge their circumstances or surroundings. Palo Alto isn’t arrogant enough to praise the teens’ independent ideologies, but it discount them apathetically as the inexperienced views of underdeveloped beings either.
One doesn’t look at Josh Boone’s career to date – last year’s Stuck in Love was an even less believable affair of faked charm than Fault in Our Stars – and expect promising things with more time and experience. His film’s impact comes from the book and its devoted tween fanbase. The Fault in Our Stars‘ success will influence Hollywood to make more films like it; more sweet stories about teen love unabated by realistic obstacles and undaunted by visionary directorial intent. It’ll be a trend, but trends rarely last more than 3 years. Gia Coppola will hopefully be around for much longer, and judging from first blush, she’s set to pave a path for herself distinct from those set by Palo Alto‘s obvious influences.