Gia Coppola’s directorial debut, Palo Alto (15), is an adaptation of actor James Franco’s collection of short stories of the same name. (And if Gia Coppola’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s the niece of director Sofia Coppola!)

What’s It About? Set in the Californian city Palo Alto, the film follows a group of high school students as they struggle with the various conflicts that they face. Shy April (Emma Roberts) is a virgin who is tempted by her flirtatious soccer coach Mr. B (James Franco), Emily (Zoe Levin) desperately tries to find love through her sexual promiscuity, Teddy (Jack Kilmer) is a sweet stoner who is on the path to a juvenile facility thanks to the actions of both himself and his live-wire best friend Fred (Nat Wolff), whose recklessness is spiraling into chaos.

palo-alto-movie-still-19Verdict? This may be her first movie but Gia Coppola’s natural flair as a director shines through within the opening few scenes of Palo Alto. Filled with graceful and breezy flits between the various characters and their lives the soft tones of the film act as a brilliant counterpart to the gritty storyline. Coppola avoids the temptation of shock value and instead embeds the deeply disturbing subplots neatly into the more natural surrounding storylines so that they appear as just a normal part of life.

In fact, the entire film has a strong air of Larry Clark around it, with a strikingly similar casual tone to his cult classics Bully and Kids, which also follow a group of teenagers caught up in disturbing anti-social behaviour.

palo-alto-2014-06The performances are strong from everybody, and Emma Roberts’ character April only just emerges as the protagonist from all the other major characters. Despite the gripping performances, it is Nat Wolff who really surprises as Fred – a character so expertly layered by Wolff that you go from absolutely hating him to feeling kind of sorry for him as you follow his deeply buried emotional turmoil. Fred is definitely the most complex and intriguing character of the bunch, and Wolff pulls it off perfectly, stealing every scene he appears in and arguably discovering his niche as an actor.

James Franco is also brilliant in his supporting role as Mr. B., a P.E. teacher who is attempting to groom his student and babysitter, April, into engaging in a sexual relationship with him. Although he probably has the least screen time of all, Franco is quietly chilling in his understated portrayal of Mr. B. and his character serves as just another example of the disturbing combination which embeds dark and sinister narratives, such as a teacher grooming his pupil, as though they are an every day part of life.

A331_C009_1219AMDespite the great narrative and really strong performances, you should be warned that Palo Alto is incredibly slow paced. However, if you’re appreciative of strong performances, a clever tone and ambiance to a film, and are happy to just sit and absorb the story without expecting huge plot twists, then is definitely one for you.

Final Words: Palo Alto is a subjective film which is certainly not to everyone’s taste. However, it is quietly unnerving in its depiction of teenage life, with controversial and disturbing subplots mixed into the story in an expert way. There are two stand out performances, the first from Nat Wolff, who transforms from a slightly-understated actor of minor characters to a showstopping, complex, and mesmerizing scene-stealer. Second is Gia Coppola, who undeniably shares stylistic similarities with her famous aunt but also stamps her own, exquisite directorial trademark all over the film.

Palo Alto is in UK cinemas from 17 October 2014