Palo Alto, CA (2009, Image Entertainment)
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Imagine, if you will, that you’re a teenage girl. It’s late, and you’re home from college for Thanksgiving break, so you go out for a walk on the mostly deserted streets of your affluent suburban town. You sit down at a bus stop. Despite the late hour, you see a school bus parked at the curb, and after you’ve been sitting there for a few minutes, the doors open, revealing a madly grinning middle-aged man behind the wheel. He licks his lips a lot when he talks. He tells you to get on the bus.

What do you do?

That’s the question I kept asking myself for the first half of Palo Alto, CA, an independently made comedy that bills itself as “reminiscent of Garden State and American Graffiti,” but instead spends its opening 45 minutes smelling like a less appetizing knockoff of American Pie (maybe American Low-Sodium Spam). You’ve got your preppy, mostly harmless dudes, your fresh-faced chicks, and a whole lot of awkwardly expository dialogue — heck, there’s even a scene featuring a sassy, cleaver-wielding grandmother who threatens her granddaughter’s bedroom guest with a “face full of knife” before asking her, wide-eyed, “is he a homosexual?”

Yes, early on, Palo Alto, CA gives every sign of living down to its horrible “one night will change their lives forever” tagline. It feels like a terrible sitcom, right down to the unwanted presence of Ben Savage (Boy Meets World) as Patrick, one of a group of four high school buddies home from college for the break, not to mention Tom Arnold as the creepy-ass bus driver who acts as a sort of demented guru for another member of the group, Nolan (played by Johnny Lewis of The O.C.). You will very likely be tempted to turn it off.

If you make it through that first half, however, you may be pleasantly surprised to discover that there’s a somewhat enjoyable film lurking within Palo Alto, CA, particularly during the scenes involving Lewis and the girl at the bus stop, Jaime (Autumn Reeser, also of The O.C.) — their touchingly awkward dialogue feels uncommonly real, and serves as a sweet counterpoint to a pair of subplots that involve the disturbing beating of a roofie-slipping frat boy and a bizarre midnight ride by the aforementioned grandmother and bedroom intruder. You find yourself wishing Lewis and Reeser’s characters had their own film, and it’s their budding relationship that helps elevate Palo Alto above its obvious (and totally played out) origins. (Bonus points go to Reeser, who does a wonderful job of looking like a perfectly believable girl next door rather than the unspeakably hot Maxim and Stuff model she is.)

If only there weren’t any Ben Savage in the movie. Savage, whose character drops f-bombs, gets drunk, and receives a blowjob from a topless party guest in the movie, had a chance to transcend his sitcom image here, but instead, he proves to be Palo Alto‘s most consistently weak link; he doesn’t act so much as mug for the camera, especially during the scenes when he’s supposed to be hammered. Admittedly, his character is probably the least interesting in the film, but he should have done more with the material.

Although this isn’t exactly an auspicious debut for director and co-writer Brad Leong, it does offer limited proof of noteworthy potential; the scenes are nicely staged, and when he isn’t being undercut by Savage or fruitlessly aping earlier teenage T&A flicks, he displays flashes of insight into the suburban young-adult experience, as well as the ups and downs of college courtship. It probably isn’t worth renting, but if you catch it on TV — particularly after the 45-minute mark — it could make for a pleasant enough diversion.

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Jeff Giles

Jeff Giles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Popdose and Dadnabbit, as well as an entertainment writer whose work can be seen at Rotten Tomatoes and a number of other sites. Hey, why not follow him at Twitter while you're at it?

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