"Palo Alto" marks the debut of the third generation of filmmakers from the Coppola family, with the first feature from writer-director Gia Coppola. Her film takes inspiration from a collection of short stories by James Franco, but don't let that scare you off, as Coppola delivers a remarkably assured depiction of aimless youth stumbling through life as they make attempt to solidify what kind of person they'll ultimately become.
The film centers on April (Emma Roberts), a good girl with enough of a rebellious streak that her path isn't immediately clear. The only one amongst her group of friends who's still a virgin, she sets her sights on Teddy, played by Jack Kilmer (son of Val Kilmer, who appears in the film as April's step-father), a generally sweet kid whose friendship with semi-deranged Fred (Nat Wolff) has a tendency to land him in trouble. When Teddy gets put on probation after a fender-bender following a party, he slides just enough out of the picture for April's predatory soccer coach (played by Franco himself) to take advantage of the situation.
Coppola's film has a dreamy tone that's more than a little reminiscent of her aunt Sophia, and the episodic plotting betrays its short-story roots, but she maintains a clear-eyed empathy with the protagonists that feels heartbreakingly real. As the teens let their insecurities guide them into making generally terrible decisions, it's hard not to feel for them. Coppola's compassion for her characters allows them to be alternately endearing and infuriating, and I can't think of a better description of adolescence.