Given James Franco's obnoxious ubiquity, it's tough not to see Palo Alto—a big-screen adaptation of the multihyphenate's short-story collection—as art imitating life. But this is also the impressive directorial debut of Gia Coppola, child of the equally everywhere Coppola family. Upping the legacy ante are actors Emma Roberts (niece of Julia, daughter of Eric) and Jack Kilmer (the spitting image of his folks, Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley), both remarkably natural in a barely there narrative that's more an assemblage of teenage wasteland vignettes—the film takes its name from Franco's hometown—than a coming-of-age story. That's not an altogether bad thing. Roberts, Kilmer and Nat Wolff, as a budding sociopath with shades of Franco, meander through a booze- and weed-induced haze of parties, reckless pranks and awkward encounters with their parents. As good girl Roberts juggles her feelings for sensitive artist Kilmer and creeper soccer coach Mr. B (yep, Franco), Coppola shows a deft command of detail and mood. For all the suburban white privilege and ennui here, Coppola's compassion for her teens is striking, and her almost aggressively laid-back approach bucks any sense of judgment. Forget Franco: By the end credits, Palo Alto is Coppola's.

Critic's Grade: B

SEE IT: Palo Alto is rated R. It opens Friday at Cinema 21.