By coincidence, two films about female teen sexuality simultaneously hit the screen — one very American, one very French, both interesting in different ways. Think of it as a jailbait double-header.
Palo Alto, the first feature from Gia Coppola (granddaughter of Francis, niece of Sofia), splits focus among three kids. April (Emma Roberts) is the level-headed good student who can’t quite give classmate Teddy (Jack Kilmer) the clear signal that she’s interested in him. Teddy shares the feeling but has the same teen communication block. He spends way too much time with his reckless friend Fred (Nat Wolff), who causes problems that get blamed on Teddy.
While April and Teddy’s pas de deux of noncommunication continues through the school year, a vulture circles: April’s soccer coach, Mr. B., a young single dad whose kid she babysits and who stares too intently at her. He’s played with consummate handsome-creepiness by James Franco. (Franco wrote the stories Coppola adapted for the film.)
Sketching a broad portrait of a high school class, Palo Alto is a descendant of Cameron Crowe’s work of real-world journalism, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (Amy Heckerling directed the film version, seven years before Crowe got behind the camera himself to make Say Anything . . .) The new movie is episodic and quietly affecting, perched somewhere between the tones of a documentary and a higher-pitched comedy a la Mean Girls.
Director Coppola is skilled in building quiet dread. Several scenes could end really badly — whether it’s Teddy having an awkward moment with Fred’s stoned dad (Chris Messina), who might be hitting on him, or the irresponsible Fred taking control of dangerous things he shouldn’t, like a car or a chainsaw. Coppola ratchets the tension, then gracefully doesn’t pull the trigger. You realize, almost despite yourself, that you care what happens to these kids.
But a few too on-the-nose moments remind us that she is still a young filmmaker. Example: the visual inventory of little-girl toys in one teen’s room as the girl is having sex with a classmate. Seen it.
And, to be honest, while the movie is well made, it begs a question: Is this a new, eternal subgenre of Hollywood? Dreamy/doomy, post–Bret Easton Ellis sagas of privileged West Coast kids growing up and navigating sex and controlled substances — written and acted by those same privileged West Coast kids? (Like Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, The Bling Ring, etc.) Many of the talent involved here are Hollywood offspring: director Coppola, Roberts (Eric’s daughter, Julia’s niece), Kilmer (son of Val) and even Wolff, son of actress Polly Platt. Is this brand of nepotism the film world’s version of the One Percent?
Then there’s the very French Young & Beautiful, by writer-director François Ozon. This guy never does the same thing twice. His last movie was the fascinating, self-referential comedy-thriller In the House. Before that was Potiche, a lackluster (for me) recreation of a 1970s-era boulevard comedy. He’s probably best known, stateside, for Swimming Pool. People who liked that movie mainly because of the toplessness of star Ludivine Sagnier will find plenty to enjoy here.
Ozon likes to provoke. With Y&B, he starts from the first moment, commenting on the “male gaze” in film by giving us a binocular-point-of-view of a teenage girl, Isabelle (Marine Vacth), taking off her bikini top as she sunbathes on a beach. That the binoculars are wielded by her kid brother Victor (Fantin Ravat) both defuses and complicates things. But soon we see that Victor is more accomplice than incestuous perv; in fact, there’s a very strong chance that he involves himself in learning about his sister’s budding sex life because he’s interested in guys himself. (It’s never clearly spelled out; he’s really still just a kid.)
Divided over four seasons, Y&B starts with Isabelle’s on-the-sand loss of virginity to a decent-seeming German tourist. Soon after, she celebrates her 17th birthday with her family — which includes a loving mother (Géraldine Pailhas, very good) and kindly stepdad (Frédéric Pierrot). Ozon sketches in this educated, upper-middle-class milieu to make the movie’s next jump, into the autumn, even more of a WTF moment: We next see Isabelle, in a power suit more typical on a young attorney, striding through the halls of a luxe Parisian hotel and into the room of an older gentleman, Georges (Johan Leysen), who pays her a good stack of Euros for sex.
When she’s not being “Lea,” Isabelle’s day job continues to be showing up for classes at high school. For a while, she manages to keep both halves of her lives operating safely in parallel. The fact that there’s no easily defined motivating factor — sexual abuse, financial need — to “explain” Isabelle’s decision to be a prosty gives Y&B a nice, sub-Buñuelian frisson for a little while. But Belle de Jour this isn’t — either in that movie’s surreal highs or degrading lows. (The worst Isabelle suffers is being underpaid by a john.)
Midway through, Y&B crashes back to earth when Isabelle’s dual identity is discovered. And yet, in becoming more “realistic” the movie plays more like a fantasy. Its returns diminish as you watch. When the great, gorgeous Charlotte Rampling — a career-long muse for Ozon — turns up for a cameo at the end as a wise, sexy, world-weary wife of one of Isabelle’s tricks, you hope the scene will work. It doesn’t. It’s a poetic, sophisticated conceit that seems to be the filmmaker’s best attempt to get out himself and the movie out of a corner.
Young & Beautiful is never less than interesting, even when you don’t buy into it. That’s true for all of Ozon’s work, which runs the gamut; that’s what a writer-director risks when he constantly shifts gears. If nothing else, the movie is a great calling card for Vacth who, naked or fully clothed, has just the right, tantalizing blend of quiet intelligence and blankness that makes her fascinating to watch.
Palo Alto. With Emma Roberts, James Franco, Jack Kilmer. Written and directed by Gia Coppola. Rated R. 98 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Young & Beautiful. With Marine Vacth, Géraldine Pailhas, Fantin Ravat. Written and directed by François Ozon. In French and German with subtitles. Unrated. 95 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Cinema.