Tim O’Brien put words to an idea in his memoir of the Vietnam war, The Things They Carried, a book assigned to me in high school: there is the “happening-truth” and the “story-truth.” This has stuck with me above all else. Things feel true, even when they aren’t; things that are true don’t feel true. Palo Alto has a sense of heaviness and truth about it in its aimlessness. Its characters flow into and out of one another, lazily beautiful and gapingly vacant, full of vomit and indifference. I feel like I knew kids like these in high school; I didn’t. I feel like these things happened, and I did them, and someone else probably did them, too; I didn’t, nor did they.
There’s something good in that, I’m sure, or something commendable — to capture something that stinks of truth instead of deceit, especially when dealing with something so thick in “story-truth,” and so bereft of “happening-truth,” or fact, jotted down without thought and full of meaning by children teetering on the edge of something else, not shiftless but instead locked in every gear at once, every mood, all the time. But then, too, there is the realization that simply because something is true does not mean that it is entertaining, because Palo Alto is boring, and its characters’ lives are average, like mine — seeming important, but not being important. Follow them past the credits as they become you, sitting in front of a computer, reading, totally uncinematic, turned to shiftlessness and stasis, settled.
April (Emma Roberts) believes she does things for no reason, that things don’t happen for a reason. She doesn’t listen, and says she doesn’t remember things or know things even when she does, and never outwardly acknowledges that she has boys falling at her feet but internally prides herself on it. Teddy (Jack Kilmer) and Fred (Nat Wolff) are rich and white and call each other “nigga” and get head from the same girl because they can. They sit on a playground and talk about psychedelic mushrooms: “It’s fucked up to think about all the people who died eating shrooms before they found the ones that fuck you up.” What they say sounds true, but it isn’t interesting to listen to, maybe, at least in part, because of how true to life it is.
The stories (adapted from James Franco’s book of the same name) are vapid — rightfully so, I guess. Gia Coppola’s direction is misguided, which, too, might be fitting. It makes things pretty that are not: a drunk driving accident, or pedophilia. Mr. B (James Franco), a soccer coach and teacher, says he’s in love with April, who babysits for him and plays on his soccer team. He kisses her one night while explaining her history homework, dim lights, a dog barking outside. As they get intimate, the camera cuts between close-ups of body parts — a typical movie cop out — not letting ugliness be itself, or beauty. It turns its head. It reserves judgment.
In April’s room, there’s a poster for The Virgin Suicides, Gia Coppola’s aunt Sofia’s debut feature, an apt comparison even without the familial tie, and a telling piece of production design nonetheless: in Palo Alto, they are fans of The Virgin Suicides, not contemporaries. They live in the real world, in a place that often tells the “happening-truth” over the “story-truth,” or tells the “story-truth” all wrong, so that it feels too true to be a story — pointless, in fact, in the way that things are, whereas stories have points, namely points A and B and the way in which you get between them. The characters act irrationally — per April’s belief — like the version of the truth that they would tell you themselves, dizzying stupidity, awful dialogue, and all.