Movie Based upon James Franco’s Short Stories Captures the High School Parties of Your Dreams, Nightmares

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Would there be American Pie without the possibilities promised by Sixteen Candles?

High school party movies were, and continue to be, baffling to me. Growing up in a suburb of Philadelphia, running with a studious crowd that still possessed the powers of social behavior, I never encountered Project X-level mayhem — “the party to end all parties.” Or, adjusted to the late '90s, I never found myself united with every classmate sect at a poolside bacchanal a la Can't Hardly Wait. I didn't even stumble into a Dazed and Confused-esque summer party, where people just stand around in the woods drinking beer and smoking weed. That last option sounds plausible, but likely took place in the basement of whoever's parents were out of town. So while pop culture may inspire a select few of today's teens to Twitter hashtag their way to a 2000-person, abandoned mansion party, I'm sticking with my belief that most suburban partying is low-key debauchery (please share your contrary.)

But that doesn't mean kids — today, yesterday (myself age 16 included), and tomorrow — don't dream. The relationship between high school movies and high school aspirations are symbiotic; a fictional party often depicts the house-wrecking bash as an oasis of conviviality, indulgence, and sexuality, the definition of freedom for anyone living under parental watch. And it takes the wishful thinking of “one perfect night” to perpetuate picture perfect raucousness for a new generation. Would there be American Pie without the possibilities promised by Sixteen Candles?

If the traditional party movies are fantasies, Gia Coppola's Palo Alto is a lucid dream. Based on a book of short stories by James Franco, the directorial debut of Francis Ford's granddaughter wanders through the high school experience like a cloudy memory. Vices intoxicate the characters with what could be — those endless summer moments — while hard truths lie behind every corner, ready to snap them into reality. A night spent smoking in the graveyard, conversations blurring into conversations, are rattled by guidance counselor interrogations. “What are you going to do with you life?” is not a question you want while glugging beer from a red solo cup.

Palo Alto interlocks the lives of three characters: April (Emma Roberts), introverted, virginal, and anxiety-ridden over a wave of sexuality emitting from her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco); Teddy (Jack Kilmer), who harbors the hots for April but sends his life careening into a dead end when he winds up in a drunk driving accident; and Fred (Nat Wolff), Teddy's bad influence who walks the fine line between a soldier of “Carpe diem” and a self-destructive loose cannon. Coppola drifts from perspective to perspective with solemn grace, accompanied by post-rock slacker jams that does her aunt Sofia proud. Blooming lights and soft, impressionistic scenery add to the dreamlike quality of Palo Alto. It's easy to imagine floating through this world forever.

That is, if the real world weren't so keen on whiplashing people left and right. Unlike American Pie, April's quest to get laid is met with torment and danger. Catty classmates jab her for never hooking up with boys. Meanwhile, the taboo sexiness of her flirtation with Mr. B dissipates as his intentions come into focus. The steady stream of parties seem to slowly lose their luster. Really, April wants Teddy, Teddy wants April, and both are waiting for the Can't Hardly Wait happy ending. Palo Alto delivers its rendition of that revelation.

Fred is the embodiment of this refracted vision of teen life. He experiences moments you'd find in indie romances, (romancing a gal by teaching her guitar in her bedroom) and the craziest party movies (jumping in the pool with all your clothes on — wild!), and yet as outsiders, we know he's one step away from a meltdown. Pot is his gateway drug to a life without responsibility or purpose. He only feels when he's pushing each moment to the extreme. At the crossroads of Palo Alto, Teddy realizes he's falling under the same spell that's consumed Fred.

At 26-years-old, Coppola authentically spins Palo Alto as both a movie for dreamers and a cautionary tale against getting drunk on dreams. Pot doesn't kill, but a person's addiction to throwing 2000-person abandoned mansion parties might. Palo Alto is cut from the familiar without forsaking the real issues on the table during the high school years. Nostalgia with a grace note of “thank god we survived this.” Because who really partied like they do in the movies?

Image via Tribeca Film Festival.