April (Emma Roberts) gets unwelcome off-field attention from her soccer coach (James Franco) in Palo Alto (photo courtesy of Tribeca Film)



Remember the brouhaha that erupted when James Franco engaged in online flirting with a 17-year-old girl?

Franco blamed his own carelessness, saying he didn’t know she was underage, and I’d like to believe him. I certainly don’t want to believe, as has been suggested, that he cooked up the whole incident as a way to publicize his turn as a student-chasing high school teacher in Palo Alto.

If he did, he would be exhibiting the kind of faulty decision-making that marks just about everyone in the flick, which is based on Franco’s 2010 collection of stories about his California hometown.

Co-written and directed by Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia), Palo Alto shows teens smoking, drinking, taking drugs and engaging in meaningless sex. And that’s on their good days. On their bad days, they destroy property, drive recklessly and generally endanger themselves and those around them.

The tale centers on shy high-schoolers April (Emma Roberts) and Teddy (Jack Kilmer). The two seem to have a crush on each other, but they express it only by exchanging awkward pleasantries and longing glances on the rare occasions when they meet.

Meanwhile, both teens spend more time than they should with people who are decidedly bad influences. April babysits for her divorced soccer coach (Franco), who makes his lascivious intentions all too clear. And Teddy seems to be joined at the hip with Fred (Nat Wolff), a hyper kid who’s perpetually on the verge of doing something both mean-spirited and dangerous.

Fred’s tendencies are revealed in the first scene, when he tries to goad Teddy into a pointless argument, then caps it off by driving his car into a tree. As the film goes on, he becomes more and more unhinged.

Why on earth does the low-key Teddy put up with him? Franco and Coppola’s shallow script doesn’t provide many answers, but it eventually reveals the source of Fred’s inner turmoil. The explanation turns out to be disappointingly old-hat.

Speaking of young clichés, the film also introduces us to Emily (Zoe Levin), a needy blonde who offers oral favors to every guy she meets, then wonders why they’re never interested in a long-term relationship.

In general, the film paints a dreary picture of teens with unfettered access to money, booze and drugs, but little access to either parental guidance or their own common sense. Only rarely are we given reason to believe they’ll come out OK.

On the other hand, the film gives us a strong reason to believe Hollywood’s latest Coppola will come out OK: Though the characters are thinly drawn, she makes sure they’re nicely photographed and convincingly portrayed. That includes April and Teddy, who are brought to life by two fellow products of established Hollywood clans: Roberts (daughter of Eric, niece of Julia) and Kilmer (son of Val, who has a cameo in the film).

Franco likewise comes out well, playing April’s coach with a vulnerability that makes him seem powerless to resist his illicit attraction. His recent brouhaha to the contrary, I’m assuming Franco didn’t base his performance on real life.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Palo Alto, rated R, opens June 6 at the Gateway Film Center.