DVD Review: Palo Alto, CA (2007)

The Indie Comedy
Comes of (Digital) Age

Hitting DVD 2/17/09

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It's a risky proposition that rarely pays off (except in films like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused) when filmmakers endear us to a small group of young characters and then separate them over the course of one wild evening.

The "one crazy night" structure is an overused cinematic trick but the courageous audacity of Palo Alto, CA's filmmakers to fully embrace the idea and expand it by creating four distinctly different adventures and a subset of additional characters takes guts at any age-- let alone when you realize that the film's co-writer and director Brad Leong was a mere twenty years old at the time of production (making him at twenty-one, the youngest filmmaker in the history of the Tribeca Film Festival where his opus premiered in 2007).

Employing a great cast of mostly fresh faced television actors-- the safer bet for newcomer Leong would've been obviously to keep his quartet of young men letting off steam on the last night of Thanksgiving break in their hometown before they head back to life as a college freshmen together for the majority of the picture. And in doing so-- by taking a cue from their television backgrounds that often favor this approach, he would've been guaranteed the type of familiar buddy comedy structure we see again and again.

Yet, Leong's gamble-- much like the same one it took to work alongside a team with two other good friends who comprise the three impossibly young brainchildren of Palo Alto, CA make the film all that much more rewarding to viewers and dare I say, one of the most impressive post-American Graffiti films I've witnessed over the past few years in the independent movement that seems to dish up a new post-high school angst film every single week.

Sharply written and instantly entertaining, the film fittingly begins by introducing us to our four main characters during a rebellious but victimless prank (typical of the age group) as they sneak back into their old high school and discuss what to do next. One of the initial standout characters is Ben Savage's Patrick-- basically a mini-Yuppie in training and the type of individual you just know has a twenty-year plan he keeps working towards in his head trying to make all the right contacts and remain devoted to his Palo Alto sweetheart, Amy (Rosalie Ward). And while Patrick happily ignores the jokes of his friend to "turkey drop" Amy (slang for the freshman return home to sever all ties so they can live it up with the college hotties in freedom) he's shocked to discover shortly thereafter that Amy is the one turkey dropping him when the far more laid back girl decides she'd rather journey to Europe to find herself before settling down.

As the polar opposite of the Type A Patrick, the childish Ryan (Justin Mentell) returns for one more tryst with Audrey (Shoshana Bush). Audrey, who is still in high school-- is treated as merely a regular sack partner for Ryan and when he shows his insensitive colors by rejecting the idea that they have a real relationship following another tumble in the sheets, Audrey grabs his keys and takes off, leaving him stranded with her grandmother. When her grandmother offers Ryan the chance to go looking for Audrey in her car, Ryan enthusiastically accepts. However, he's less than thrilled when she makes the decision to tag along. And, much like American Graffiti's odd ride-along match-up of Milner and Carol-- Ryan and the grandmother provide one of the most fascinating threads of the film as they chat and reveal sides to their characters one wouldn't expect, especially considering the fact that initially Ryan is the least likable of the bunch... or to put it in Graffiti terms, he's like Harrison Ford's character in the beginning until he becomes Paul LeMat's Milner by the end (without of course, the race showdown to "Green Onions" at Paradise Road).

The sweetest plot of the film concerns the shy, late-bloomer Nolan (Johnny Lewis) who finds an unlikely mentor in his old bus driver Morgan (Tom Arnold). After having another fight with his ball and chain, Morgan takes "Old Yeller" out on the town, cruising the streets of Palo Alto in his school bus. Quickly, he picks up Nolan and-- despite conveniently offering him romantic advice throughout the film that could ordinarily be a screenwriting cliche, Arnold just keeps getting better onscreen making it believable throughout as eventually he intervenes to help Nolan make a possible love connection with another cutie home from break, Jamie (Autumn Reeser).

Reeser-- a likable actress who's impressed me in other indie work like Our Very Own is given the best female role in the entire film-- (aside from Audrey's grandmother)-- as essentially the young males behind the movie seem most at ease in writing from their own points-of-view and less comfortable when trying to give accurate dialogue to the opposite sex. Although she seems to be a slight deviation from Natalie Portman's adorable eccentric with an edge from Zach Braff's Garden State and Nolan's is reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss in Graffiti, Reeser and Lewis's chemistry keeps us fascinated.

Due to the gentle adventure the two share, we stay tuned even when the film veers slightly off course as Patrick gets wasted and has a similar "I am a Golden God!" like Almost Famous moment at a high school party and the fourth plot involving the frat pledging Alec (Aaron Ashmore) who meets up with an older member of his house that leads to awkward male bonding rituals including a spur of the moment plan to fight is less effective than the others, (aside from Ashmore and Savage's assured portrayals).

Despite a few predictable and overused teen comedy bumps along the road such as the ultimate decision to have Savage and his brother both get lucky in positively American Pie like style-- the film's heart is in the right place. And ultimately, Palo Alto, CA more than succeeds in providing a much richer experience for the target demographic than most films being made for characters moving from high school to college. Moreover, its success proves the old piece of sage advice that in order to do something right, you have to do it yourself and it took filmmakers who are roughly the same age as their characters to craft a work that's both worthwhile and genuinely entertaining without any "test screenings," "number crunching," or Hollywood pitch meetings to provide the requisite toilet joke here or naked chick there.

No instead, Leong and company made something earnest, relatable, authentic and true for their generation by taking risks that paid off because they never lost sight of the kind of film they set out to make. Featuring a filmmaker commentary, deleted and alternate scenes, along with cast and crew interviews that embrace the do-it-yourself spirit of the film-- Palo Alto, CA has just debuted on DVD this week courtesy of Anchange Productions and Image Entertainment.