Friday, August 8, 2014

Palo Alto Review

When I realised I was seeing Palo Alto last weekend and read the synopsis, I really thought I was going to see a snapshot of the lives of teenagers in America. Something edgy and raw like 13 or Skins. A more modern telling of the same kind of coming of age story and the trials we all experienced during those adolescent years. When the film began I re-framed my expectations, perhaps this was something more like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, beautifully atmospheric, accessible yet with darker tones, less raw but still realistic in its core values and message. Unfortunately, Palo Alto wasn't anything like 13, Skins or The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It wasn't really anything substantial at all.

Based on a series of short stories written by James Franco, Palo Alto follows four teenagers as they stumble through life trying to figure out who they are and what they want whilst not really figuring anything out at all.

Follow me under the cut for more.

I'll start by saying that Palo Alto could have been something extraordinary, and truthfully at the end of the day was mediocre at best. This is frustrating because of the wealth of content available to the screenwriters and directors of this film. The segmented approach to story telling, jumping to different events in the characters lives with little sense of time or relevance can absolutely work for the best storytellers and in this film, it seemed to fall flat. For the most part, I think this was due to the poor characterisation of our leads, which results in the viewer having very little care at all about their lives or wanting to know more about who they are or where they would eventually end up. I felt nothing for any of the characters except perhaps Franco's 'Mr. B' who was utterly creepy.

Upon reading parts of the short stories the film is based on and synopsis' it becomes clear that this was bound to be the case due to the choices the writer made in adapting these stories to film. At times, many different characters are combined in order to tell the story from the point of view of fewer leads. Perhaps this was supposed to enhance the characterisation but it definitely has the opposite affect. Aside from Teddy, the characters seem very disjointed and not well thought out. Their motivations are inconsistent and the changes from the source material actually make even less sense than one might imagine.

What Palo Alto does well is create an atmosphere of boredom and endless time; of fogginess and abandon that perfectly match the dissociated states that the characters find themselves in. The viewer feels like their ability to think is also impaired as Teddy and Fred while away their time with drugs and pointless hypothetical arguments. They also remember how youth felt at that time, full of things that had to be done at the cost of more interesting things. Alice spends long hours in her room staring at the walls, pretending to be someone else, sleeping or doing homework. Teddy seems to do the same, staring at the ceiling, playing guitar or getting wasted.

Cinematically, the film is beautiful. Shots street-scapes and characters really give a sense of isolation in a place that could be heaven that is instead, nothing like the character ever imagined it could be. The serenity of the frame is often interrupted by a character doing something spontaneous and perhaps a little dangerous to break the monotony; Fred driving a parked car into a wall, Teddy hitting another car driving drunk, the characters running down a street or swimming in a pool turning into something violent. The colours and consuming continue to juxtapose a beautiful setting with a very ordinary and boring life and desperation for adventure or something different.

However, these finer points don't save the film from being lacklustre and feeling like a waste of time. There are many better films that convey the same types of things and I would recommend those over this unfortunately.

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