Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Lost Adults of "Palo Alto"

Palo Alto is a movie you don’t want to see. No one should want to see it. But if you’re a parent, or a teacher, or anyone who plays or should play a meaningful role in the lives of teenagers, you probably should see it.

Based on a series of short stories written by Hollywood enigma James Franco, and following the lives of a handful of lost teenagers (or are they just teenagers? Discuss!), the movie is haunting for how it approaches the old hat teen subject matter, for the statements it makes and the accusations it insinuates.

Teens say “I love you” a surprising number of times in the movie. They say it to one another, and they say it to adults. And every time, the viewer is left wondering if anyone has the slightest clue what it means to love someone. In the movie, these words are a teen's initial effort to simply connect with someone -- maybe anyone -- else beyond their own tortured soul. Like a "poke" on Facebook.

Parents say “I love you” in Palo Alto. Teachers say “I love you,” too. And every time, the viewer is left wondering not what the adult feels, but rather, what the adult wants. When the teacher (James Franco) says it, what lever is he trying to pull? With the parents, have they lost the myriad ways to actually show love and are thus fall back on mere words to express what we’ve lost the ability (or motivation) to indicate other ways? Do the parents just want to efficiently dispense with their responsibilities?

In other words, in the world of adults communicating with teens, are they all saying words -- be it “I love you” or much anything else -- to avoid having to do anything that takes real effort? Articles and blogs all over decry how disconnected and distant Kids These Days are with their Devices, their heads buried in them. But time and again, it's the adults who seem to avoid trying to connect.

Another pleasant surprise -- sort of spoiler alerts ahead -- is how honestly the movie tries to be about teenage danger. The dangers are real, and some bad things do happen in the movie. But what you see time and again is how much time and energy adults waste on overrated dangers while ignoring (or pretending away) the real dangers teens face.

In one scene, the most manic character, Fred, drives down the road with his pal Teddy. Fred is stoned off his gourd and whipping around a butcher knife like it’s a slap bracelet. The scene is brilliant because it’s fraught with risk, and it sets every Parenting Panic alarm on full blast. You can practically hear a death knell tolling for them in the background of the film, and you’re mostly just wondering how they’re gonna die -- by stabbing, by wrecking, by some other yet-unseen force like Jason Voorhees?

But they don’t die. Nobody gets stabbed. Nobody wrecks. They all live. At least to the end of the film.

Because that’s what happens 97% of the time in real life. Teens do stupid, risky, dangerous things, and they get away with it. Or at least they survive.

Meanwhile, parents don’t blink about high schooler April (Emma Roberts in a wonderfully understated role) babysitting for her soccer coach, a single dad, apparently at all sorts of hours. Parents don’t blink about high schooler Zoe bringing Fred into her bedroom or walking out of the house behind the hedges, 30 yards from the kitchen where her mom fixes dinner, so she can blow him.

The message of Palo Alto is painful and simple and true. Most teenagers -- especially middle and upper middle class white ones -- will move past their difficult and confusing years of anguish and euphoria. Most of them won’t succumb to addiction. Most of them will get slaps on the wrist from judges for their stupid decisions and defiant attitudes. Most of them will have regrettable sexual experiences with crappy people and grow to live a normal-ish life.

Meanwhile, they will get far too little help, support, understanding or investment from the adults they’re supposed to believe they can depend on. The parents who are supposed to care enough to give time rather than a few spare words. The teachers who are supposed to be role models or at least dedicated educators rather than predatory narcissists or ruthless distant judges of misbehavior.

When James Franco’s Mr. B finally gets April on his couch, her clothes coming off as they descend “willingly” into the inevitable criminal act of statutory rape, they pause for a moment while April acknowledges that it’s not Thursday, even though she’s wearing Thursday underwear. White cotton, agonizingly childish days-of-the-week panties with a teddy bear on the front. If you wondered whether Emma Roberts was being sexualized in some beer commercial kind of way, those thoughts get perished swiftly and with prejudice. She’s a f*#king kid. This guy is a f*&king scumbag. End of discussion.

The rest of the scene treats the sex scene as it deserves to be treated. No confusion about what’s going on or how we ought to judge matters (think of the “gray area” of Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” rape scene). Frankly, it’s the kind of horrible -- yet non-violent, non-melodramatic, yet plenty squirm-worthy -- framing of a sexual encounter we don’t have to watch nearly often enough.

Kids will be kids. And far too many adults just suck.

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