I bristle when someone dismisses a film because its lead character wasn't "likable." A protagonist's likeability is hardly a prerequisite for a worthwhile movie (Stanley Kubrick proved that truth repeatedly), but, at the very least, he or she should be interesting. Alas, Palo Alto, CA is one of those efforts in which our leads are neither likeable nor interesting.
If only this low-budget indie had been, well, better. It's hard not to root for its moviemakers, a group of 20- and 21-year-old college students with an obvious passion for cinema. According to one of the bonus interviews on the DVD, its director, Brad Leong, wasn't even old enough to drink at the time of the flick's wrap party. But the rooting interest we have for the filmmakers don't translate to Palo Alto's four college freshmen enduring misadventures on the last night of their Thanksgiving vacation.
Juggling several storylines, Palo Alto, CA unfolds over the span of a single evening. We are introduced to the four when they break into their old high school, presumably so they can hang out by a row of lockers and engage in some tortured exposition outlining their respective backstories. Patrick (Ben Savage) is the uptight yuppie-in-training devoted to his high school sweetheart, Amy (Rosalie Ward). Ryan (Justin Mentell) is a disagreeable womanizer who is leading on a younger girl (Shoshana Bush) he has listed on his speed-dial as "hot high school chick." Shy Nolan (Johnny Lewis) is awkward around members of the opposite sex. Alec (Aaron Ashmore) is pledging a fictitious fraternity at the University of Southern California.
Wanna guess whether they all discover valuable life-lessons before the evening is through? Patrick, after being unceremoniously dumped, drowns his sorrows at a raucous party complete with gratuitous girl-on-girl action. Alec winds up subjected to the hazing of a dope-smoking frat brother (Ryan Hansen) who is nothing but trouble. Ryan learns about love, or empathy, or something, when he is forced to spend an evening with his quasi-girlfriend's kooky grandmother (Eve Brent). And in the only plotline that manages to sustain interest -- namely because it doesn't involve total cretins -- Nolan is introduced by a horny bus driver (Tom Arnold) to a spunky and cool girl named Jaime (Autumn Reeser).
Granted, predictability isn't fatal in coming-of-age movies. Neither is shallowness, for that matter. But dullness is a buzzkill, and the unfortunate fact is that Palo Alto, CA offers little to engage viewers. Its central characters are prickly and self-centered jerks, with the possible exception of Nolan, who mainly benefits from a palpable rapport with Reeser, an actress of considerable appeal.
Director Leong clearly knows his way around a camera, but he is hampered by an uneven and heavy-handed script. Screenwriter Tony Vallone deserves props for ambition, and there is an organic flow to character arcs and the epiphanies they inevitably entail. But the humor is spotty, to put it charitably. And when it's bad -- as when Patrick stops a party so that he can publicly scold his ex -- it is positively cringe-worthy.
Presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Palo Alto, CA offers a decent, if unremarkable, picture. Many of the scenes seem too soft, particularly in a few dimly lit sequences.
The disc offers Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround. Both get the job done in what is a dialogue-driven movie; rear speakers get little workout in the former mix. Optional subtitles are in Spanish and English for the hearing-impaired.
Whatever the film's faults, some of the bonus material is surprisingly compelling. A commentary with Leong and Vallone is chock full of anecdotes about the travails of making a first feature. Some of the same information is covered in The Lessons of Palo Alto (13:26), in which the pair are interviewed alongside the film's producer, Dan Engelhardt. The three discuss how most of the crew consisted of exceedingly hardworking high school students.
Interviews with Johnny Lewis (1:21), Justin Mentell (1:55) and Autumn Reeser (2:10) are dispensable, as is a one-minute, 36-second deleted scene. An alternate opening runs shy just of two minutes. Rounding things out is a theatrical trailer.
The young filmmakers behind Palo Alto, CA get some things right, but dreary characters, lame humor and a general lack of subtlety hamstring this indie.