Teen Angst & Troubled Youth: Coppola’s “Palo Alto” & Mackenzie’s “Starred Up”


Gia Coppola in Telluride on Friday. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Every generation has films that portray youth and try to understand contemporary kids. Some expose outrageous juvenile behavior (often played for laughs), others explore darker themes pegged to the inner turmoil of adolescence and many capture kids' coming of age experimentation with drinking, drugs and sex. In the case of Palo Alto, Gia Coppola (she's the grand daughter of Francis Ford) is exploring teen lives in the Bay Area of California that are marked by emotional intensity, a reckless spirit and a general sense of confusion.

She sees her first feature, adapted from short stories written by James Franco, as specific to a unique time and place but also having a wider resonance. And Coppola says she was inspired by previous teen angst tales such as her grandfather's The Outsiders and her aunt's The Virgin Suicides, as well as The Last Picture Show, Diner and American Graffiti.

"The movie takes place in Palo Alto but these are universal experiences about what's going on with the youth today," Gia Coppola said this morning, introducing a screening at the Telluride Film Festival.

Vivid and heartfelt, featuring a roster of fresh faced young actors, Coppola's assured new film follows the ups and downs of the inner lives of a group of well-off American teens (and their disconnected parents). Emma Roberts and Jack Kilmer (son of Val, who has a small role in the movie) anchor the film, playing a pair of kids who can't help but be distracted from finding a better path for themselves.


Emma Roberts in Gia Coppola's Palo Alto

Coppola, a 26 year old video director with a background in photography, is jetting off to Italy today to unveil this first film at the Venice Film Festival. We walked together for a few moments after the screening, before she had to make her way to the airport, and she said she related to the film and its subjects. Explaining that her own experiences mirrored those depicted in the movie, Coppola added that she hoped to capture an authenticity that emerged from the way the kids related to each other on set. The actors lived together in a house, her mom cooking for the kids during the 30-day shoot.

"Making a movie is a lot of problem solving," Coppola said in note on the production, "And being a first time director is a lot like being a teenager: your skin breaks out, you're awkward, insecure, and hot-headed."

Quickly moving from hot-headed to explosive is the troubled teen character at the heart of David Mackenzie's stark prison drama, Starred Up.

Another new film focused on disaffected youth here at the Telluride Film Festival, Mackenzie's latest depicts the brutal and volatile inner world of a British prison that aims to contain a kid who is rapidly deteriorating into a monster.

Jack O'Connell (some may know him from the second season of the British show Skins) stars as an on-the-edge kid thrown into a violent adult prison. An unexpected father-son drama emerges in the film when the teen encounters a man from his own past. The film was written by a former volunteer prison therapist Jonathan Asser.

Introducing the film to a small crowd in Telluride last night, Mackenzie warned the audience about the brutality in his new film (and advised that the thick British accents and slang might be a bit tough for some ears).


Jack O'Connell in David Mackenzie's Starred Up

The film stirred immediate buzz in the wake of its first screening and, after last night's showing, Mackenzie and producer Gillian Berrie seemed relieved. Not only did the film play well, keeping the audience riveted for its entire 100 intense minutes, when the lights came up there was no shortage of U.S. distributors (Sony Classics, Fox Searchlight, Roadside Attractions, IFC Films and others) in the room watching the very first screening of the movie.

Outside on the sidewalk after the screening, as Mackenzie greeted well-wishers, Berrie offered an outward sigh of relief.

"I can never watch the first screening of a film I make," she said, still looking slightly stressed over the experience of showing the film for the first time. This was a particularly special production, Berrie elaborated. She said that everything went so well during the 24-day shoot that she couldn't imagine having such a charmed experience again.

Mackenzie singled out Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped as a reference for his prison drama, but he added that he hopes it will also resonate on an emotional, more universal level.

“I’ve been between genres or have bent genres before but there’s no avoiding that this is a prison movie,” David Mackenzie recently told Screen International. “In general, I’m not really interested in genre and hopefully our film stands apart from that but inevitably it will belong to that genre to an extent.”

Eugene Hernandez is filing daily dispatches from the Telluride Film Festival for FilmLinc Daily. Follow him on Twitter for updates: @eug

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