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Are the Kids All Right?

ae giaGia Coppola on youthful indiscretion and her debut film ‘Palo Alto

It wasn’t easy for Gia Coppola to show her feature film debut to her grandfather. Yes, because he’s Francis Ford Coppola, but no, not because she was worried he would criticize the way she’d directed the actors in Palo Alto, her new film about suburban teenagers having sex, taking drugs and generally acting out in suburban Silicon Valley. Not because he might not like the script, which she adapted from the short-story collection “Palo Alto Stories,” written by James Franco, who also co-stars. Not because of blocking, lighting, framing or any other reason related to the fact that Francis Ford Coppola is one of the most celebrated directors of all time.

Nope. Purely for grandpa reasons.

“I was super nervous to show my older relatives this movie,” Gia Coppola tells me in a phone interview. “Like ‘oh my god, you guys are going to think this is a reflection of me or something.’”

Considering the elder Coppola was making nudie films and hanging out with Jim Morrison in college, she probably didn’t have too much to worry about.

“He was like ‘c’mon, that was going on when I was young,’” she says.

Indeed, while Palo Alto may shock and worry some parents, so did Rebel Without a Cause almost 60 years ago. Despite the hand-wringing of each new generation of parents, the emotional undercurrent of the desperate-to-belong kids in Coppola’s film shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“Definitely there are things that are more extreme at times, and social media is involved, but I think all those emotions, those growing pains, are still the same,” she says.

Palo Alto doesn’t go in for the apocalyptic theatrics of Larry Clark’s Kids, and though it will get some comparisons to the work of her aunt Sophia Coppola, it doesn’t hold its teen characters at arm’s length in the same way as The Bling Ring. There’s a warmth at the core of Palo Alto, an empathy for the characters that comes across both in the way she holds them in close-up much of the time, and the vulnerability she brings out even in their worst moments.

“I loved all of my characters,” Coppola admits, “and for me to understand where they were coming from, I really had to dig deep in myself to find a relation. I was very nervous about working with the actors. I was just trying to be honest and open.”

In the process, though, she was able to inspire some added dimensions in their performances. For instance, the character of Fred, the best friend of the film’s central character Teddy (played by Jack Kilmer) is the movie’s most infuriating and unpredictable personality. But because she could see things from Fred’s point of view, Coppola was able to bring out a relatable element in actor Nat Wolff’s interpretation, which comes across poignantly in the film.

“Nat always said that on the page the character seems like such an asshole, but I always felt like he was funny and fun. So he kind of had that realization that this character just thinks he’s having a good time. He’s not necessarily trying to be malicious, he’s just lashing out in ways that even he probably doesn’t fully understand yet,” says Coppola.

Certainly the movie’s most delicate scene is the much-discussed seduction by Franco’s soccer-coach character, Mr. B, of one of his players, April (played by Emma Roberts). There was a lot of hype—and misinformation—swirling around that scene around the time that Franco went on Instagram last month and claimed to have almost hooked up with a 17-year-old fan. Internet skeptics proclaimed it was all a publicity stunt, given the obvious parallel to his Palo Alto character (Coppola confirms Franco said nothing to her before posting it). But the lewd speculation about the scene at the time turns out to have absolutely nothing to do with how it actually plays in the film. Instead, Coppola uses some interesting shots to imagine it in a unique way.

“I just feel like sex scenes in movies, that doesn’t really interest me,” she says. “I wanted to convey it in a way that isn’t the standard. I felt like if it was more artistic, maybe you would feel what was going on rather than just seeing it.”

Coppola almost didn’t ask Franco to play the part, thinking it might be weird because he wrote the stories. But she’s glad she did.

“It was a hard character for me to understand, and I didn’t want it to come across as cliché,” she says. “James is such a great actor. I learned from him saying ‘I think the character just needs to be normal, what he’s doing is enough to come across as creepy.’ That was such a great thing, because it’d be so easy for that character to come off as over the top. He did a really great job.” 

Palo Alto, written and directed by Gia Coppola and starring Jack Kilmer, Emma Roberts and James Franco, opens Friday at the Del Mar. Rated R, 100 min.

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