Palo Alto ★★★★

Cigarette smoke rises from the Vatican chimney – a new Coppola has been chosen! 26-year-old Gia Coppola’s first feature sounds like a toxic brew of nepotism (she’s Francis Ford Coppola’s granddaughter) and restless vanity (the film is adapted from a collection of short stories by James Franco), but such suspicions, however warranted, are almost immediately put to bed. Essentially Fast Times at Raymond Carver High, a tight and teen-sized “Short Cuts”, “Palo Alto” begins with a blast of frustrated energy, the prologue soaked in such sensitive and assuredly adolescent nowhere, California verve that you’re helpless to accept that the film exists for reasons other than the fact that it can.

“Palo Alto” has a palpable sense of place, at once both flat and shimmering with the promise of a million brighter tomorrows, but the film could ultimately take place anywhere in America. The white privilege that hosts these particular stories – a surface element as endemic to the work of young Coppolas as soft lighting and perfect music – ultimately helps the characters to be more broadly accessible, their lack of responsibilities helping to forefront and deepen their collective need for purpose.

The first kids we meet are Fred (Nat Wolff) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer, son of Val), two stringy teen boys who only seem to make sense to each other. Teddy is a wallflower with a penchant for drunk-driving, a blonde-headed mop who’s less of a friend to Fred than he is his handler. Fred is a hyper-aggressive and vaguely sociopathic a**hole, that inexhaustible kid we all knew (or were) who preferred wanton destruction to hanging out, and didn’t seem to give a s**t about anything, often as a smokescreen for some obvious emotional damage.

The film’s cast expands prismatically from there, introducing us to the sensitively prim April (Emma Roberts, who has never been more compelling) via the giant crush that Teddy has on her. April’s semi-circle of pals includes her sexpot friend Emily (Zoe Levin) and her squinty single dad soccer coach, Mr. B (James Franco, natch). Watching how the stories blossom and intertwine is among the film’s greatest pleasures, the threads organically knotting up in ways that capture the casual significance that colors almost every adolescent experience.

Beautifully shot by the rather unexperienced Autumn Durald, a cinematographer whose talents obviously outstretch her IMDB page, Gia Coppola’s debut is awash in a dreamy haze similar to the textures which have come to define the films directed by her aunt Sofia. And while the soft lighting and laconic mood will doubtlessly draw lazy comparisons between the two, “Palo Alto” reveals itself to be unique in both style and story, Coppola’s approach informed by her characters rather than levied upon them. As a result, the film is simultaneously blithe and feeling, these kids so unsure as to what in life is worth genuinely caring about (and to what extent they should give themselves to it) that they look at each other every day as if for the first time.

All the same, the fluidity of their circumstances and perspectives doesn’t keep “Palo Alto” from building to a clear climax, the film building to an anomalously dramatic scene that unfolds as proof of the strong instincts that underscore Coppola’s promise. After 85 minutes of perceptive anti-drama, the stakes suddenly spike as one of the threads is imbued with life-or-death importance. The beat is as pivotal as it is unexpected, and Coppola’s refusal to layer it with false drama is compelling proof that her talents are worthy of her surname. Coppola’s adaptation owns the humility of Franco’s short stories and coheres them into something significant – as fun as “Risky Business” and as sincere as “The Spectacular Now”, “Palo Alto” is one of the best movies ever made about high school life in America (admittedly a low bar), blurring the lines between how unique it is to be a teenager, and how universal it is to feel like one.