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‘Palo Alto’ has keen sense of place (w/video)

  • James Franco, left, as Mr. B and Emma Roberts as April in a scene from the film, "Palo Alto," directed by Gia Coppola. (AP Photo/Tribeca Films)

Good lord, not another Coppola.

The writer-director of “Palo Alto” is Gia Coppola, the 27-year-old granddaughter of Francis, niece of Sofia and Roman, and daughter of Gian-Carlo, who died in a boating accident in 1986.

Clearly, something is in the vines up there at the Coppola Winery in Sonoma County, because this adaptation of James Franco’s short story collection of the same name — more about that in a bit — has a poetic eye and a bruised, sympathetic sensibility. They don’t fully cohere, and sometimes “Palo Alto” drifts as much as its characters do. But it’s a solid debut, and it gets to the heart of suburban adolescence in ways that slicker, more ostensibly mature movies don’t. That includes Aunt Sofia’s “The Bling Ring.”

Franco’s 2010 book — part of the actor’s apparent mission to prove he can do everything, if not well — was a series of interconnected tales about teenage debauchery and despair in sunny Lotus-land, set in Franco’s hometown. Coppola’s screenplay tightens the focus to a handful of the book’s kids while sketching a convincing larger portrait of privilege and anomie. Think “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” — that 1982 classic is directly referenced at one point — without the laughs but with twice the sensitivity.

The two central characters are April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer), the former a nice girl flirting with bad behavior, the latter a budding artist who keeps screwing up. They love each other — you sense it’s been going on since grammar school — but are too shy behind their masks of cynicism to do much about it. Instead, Teddy cruises the streets and indulges in petty acts of vandalism with his bad-news best friend Fred (Nat Woolff), while April gets drawn into the orbit of her soccer coach Mr. B (Franco), a divorced dad who knows exactly the right things to say to a smart, disaffected high school girl.

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