While trying to find Thanksgiving-themed movies to watch this week, I stumbled upon this little-seen indie dramedy from 2007 that seemed to hit a lot of specific traits that I tend to love in movies: A “one crazy night” hangout plot structure, coming of age themes, a cast plucked from teen dramas when I was watching them. Specifically, the focus of 4 kids having trouble adjusting to college in 2007 fits me to a T, so I knew I had to track this down.
It turns out that this movie is an off-brand 2000s American Graffiti set the day after Thanksgiving — four friends who start together, then split up and have a revelatory adventure, occasionally crossing paths. And while it’s no hidden gem, with a wonky and inconsistent screenplay, I will admit that I enjoyed it more than my rating indicates.
The first thing you need in a movie like this is a cast with sufficient presence and chemistry to carry the premise. Palo Alto, CA succeeds in this regard: All 4 leads are fairly strong, encapsulating their specific (albeit odd) arcs. (There is an air of tragedy around the movie now, though, as two of the four leads died within a decade of its release.)
The supporting cast is good, too. Autumn Reeser is a particular highlight as a magnetic manic pixie dream girl. Tom Arnold turns in a suitably off-kilter performance in a few minutes of screentime.
Unfortunately, the script doesn’t quite live up to the project’s potential. There is an appealing naturalism and flow in the dialogue, but major plot points or character decisions or thematic resolutions are quite obtuse. Ben Savage’s Patrick ends up in a four-way with his little brother and two beautiful women; Reeser’s Jaime speaks like she’s an alien who only half-understands human behavior; Arnold’s bus driver character is weird and creepy where the movie wants him to be enigmatic; and Justin Mentell’s Ryane spends half the movie with a caricatured grandma who almost dies near the end.
Other moments of the script work better. Mentell’s Ryane gets to deliver some truly nasty lines before his character course corrects. Savage and his brother (Connor Ross) have a compelling dynamic, and Johnny Lewis is genuinely disarming as the gawky shy guy. There’s a killer gag of the leads all calling each other in a circle with the same question that was my lone laugh-out-loud moment. I also appreciated that the movie doesn’t shy away from being R-rated with blasts of angry profanity where needed (plus some sexy time).
So, for all its unevenness and aimlessness, Palo Alto, CA ends up a harmlessly watchable American Graffiti riff that was a nice Thanksgiving week watch.
Nearly Good (4/8)
Note: This review was originally published elsewhere. Please excuse brevity or inconsistencies in style. If you have questions or feedback, please leave a comment or contact me.