In Gia Coppola’s movie about high school in Southern California, from a collection of stories by the actor James Franco (who plays a coach in the film), adolescent life does not seem that different from anywhere else in the United States. Or, leaving aside a few technological changes, than it did in my own time. There’s a place on the school grounds to sneak off for a smoke. Sex is being explored, or frustratingly denied. Cliques form. You’re cool, or you’re not. Main or its equivalent is dragged. There’s more gender equality than there once was, but girls’ soccer as a school sport is more or less like the male ones, everyone vying for status and recognition.

PALO ALTO takes an intense interest in the minutiae of human behavior, the characteristic that someone – I forget who – posited as the source of the moral in the films of Erich Rohmer. Beyond that, its observant quality forces attention on the arbitrariness of social forms that, on a day to day level, and especially in adolescence, tend to be regarded as normative and unremarkable. Looked at dispassionately, under the veil, say, of a visitor from Alpha Centauri, the ways in which humans give shape to their social imperatives seem just plain weird. What could be stranger than how teenagers dress and interact in hallways and cars and on the phone and sitting at the bizarrely arranged desks in their classrooms?

What Coppola has captured (in a way that is almost but not quite convincing as organically unfolding rather than plotted) is the unselfconsciousness with which these behaviors are accepted by those who participate in them. There is plenty of frustration and resentment, but not of the sort that calls out the arbitrariness of social form. To the teens in PALO ALTO, the way things are is simply a given, and hence normal, but of course there is the underlying tension of biology, which is to say of sex, the very impulse that so many social structures are designed either to facilitate or repress. It is as though we have yet to get our timing right in this regard, with responsible reproduction delayed so far past its biological possibility.

The splendid Emma Roberts and the uncommonly sensitive Jack Kilmer are at the core of that dilemma, she struggling with virginity and its discontents, he with an emotional maturity that puts him at odds with the puerility of his friends. If PALO ALTO falls into formula it is that there is no way the two of them could not in some sense get together; but then, that would be arguably true in life as much as in the movies. They are, in any case, on their own in sorting things out: the adults in PALO ALTO are ineffectual at best – and worse, morally bankrupt. This is a film of great sensitivity and penetration, a moral act in its own right, marred only by the predictability of its outcomes, even those that we presume instead of see.

Check listings for viewing options.