Writer-director Gabrielle Demeestere was one of the filmmakers who worked on The Color of Time, the film where James Franco played Pulitzer Prize-winning poet C.K. Williams. Demeestere now adapts some of the short stories in Franco's book A California Childhood. Some of the short stories from that book were previously adapted in the film Palo Alto directed by Gia Coppola two years ago. This movie in a sense is a sequel. It doesn't continue the story or the characters in Coppola's film. It merely continues similar themes and issues. Its focus, however, is on younger characters, which somehow makes it more compelling and dangerous.
Demeestere sets the time period by the placement of computer technology. The opening in fact is a series of 8-bit graphics against a black background. The graphics are clearly before the advent of the Apple Macintosh and certainly before Microsoft's Windows software. It's very, very basic pixels slowly flashing across the screen. With the exception of a car or two, and references to 80's films as if they're present-day, this movie feels like it could take place in the here-and-now.
Everett Meckler stars as Chris, a prepubescent boy between the age of 10 and 13. He's an elementary school student in southern California. At the start, he's in the passenger seat as his dad, played by James Franco, drives him and his younger brother, Alex, up to Yosemite National Park. The trip leads them to hike the mountainous trail, see the amazing trees and soak in nature, particularly Yosemite's impressive waterfall.
Due to Franco's presence, this trek through rocky terrain invokes the feelings of his Oscar-nominated film 127 Hours. With no clear purpose or narrative premise, one is never sure where the story is going, so it's possible that it could become a story of survival, man and child versus nature and wilderness, the harshness and brutality of it.
Much like The Color of Time, there's some echoes of Terrence Malick and not just the shots that look upward at the light, no matter the source. There's even whispered narration and moments that feel as if Demeestere were certainly affected or inspired by The Tree of Life. Yet, this film is less a commentary on religion or religious influences.
As Franco states plainly in Interior. Leather Bar., he's more interested in the portrayal of sex, and not just its depiction but also its education to people culturally and personally. This movie walks a risky line when its education involves young children like Chris but Franco's character speaks clearly and directly to his children about sex and what it is, absent of any shame or puritanical fear.
Alec Mansky co-stars as Joe, a classmate of Chris. They go to the same school. We even see them in math class together. His story is a contrast or a foil to Chris'. Whereas Chris has his father and most of his family around him or has easy access to people who love and will take care of him, Joe does not have that. He doesn't seem to have any parental supervision.
I compared a character in Gia Coppola's Palo Alto to Plato from Rebel Without a Cause. I would make a similar comparison to the character of Joe here. Plato had no parental supervision, which made him desperate to cling to someone who could be a potential father, brother or family of some kind. Joe is similarly desperate.
Henry Hopper who was featured in The Color of Time is featured here too. He isn't given a name that's spoken aloud in the film but the credits refer to him as Henry. If Mansky's character is comparable to Plato, played by Sal Mineo, from Rebel Without a Cause, then Hopper's character is comparable to Jim Stark, played by James Dean. As portrayed by Hopper, his character is somewhere between that and Ethan Hawke's character in Boyhood. It probably helps that Hopper looks like a younger and sexier version of Hawke, but therein lies the danger.
The danger involves the fact that we don't know what Henry's intentions are. Given that Joe is experiencing what could be considered sexual harassment at school by a classmate, it's a wonder if Henry might be the adult that lures Joe further down a rabbit hole of secret, sexual acts. There's a moment where Henry touches Joe in a way that feels inappropriate. The comparison between Mineo and Dean doesn't help, given the sexual tension between those two. However, what progresses lands rather well, thanks to Demeestere's direction and Hopper's performance.
Calum John co-stars as Ted, the aforementioned classmate who does something that could be considered sexual harassment. When it comes to his relationship with his father, Ted is somewhere between Chris and Joe. Like Joe's story, Ted is always or at least comes within arm's reach of danger, sexual and physical harm, but, through it all, we get a stronger sense than even Richard Linklater provided of a boy exploring the world and coming into his own.
Unlike Linklater's Boyhood, there is a disturbing lack of female presence. However, if you consider this a companion piece to Coppola's Palo Alto, which has a greater female presence, then there is a balance and this movie does feel right, if at times tense and uneasy.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 21 mins.
Reviewed for Portland Film Festival.
For more information, go to http://portlandfilmfestival.com/