Review: Yosemite (Demeestere, 2015) – MVFF 2015


Still from the movie Yosemite

I’ve long looked for an excuse to read James Franco‘s writings, and now the Mill Valley Film Festival has provided one. Yosemite, based on two stories in Franco’s collection A California Childhood, screened at the festival this past October. Director Gabrielle Demeestere‘s debut feature-length picture is a film in three parts, relating the loosely connected tales of a trio of pre-adolescent classmates: Chris, Joe, and Ted.

In the titular story, Chris’s father (played by Franco himself) takes Chris (Everett Meckler) and his younger brother Alex (Troy Tinnirello) on a winter trip to Yosemite. Chris (a troubled kid or just a normal kid?) entertains feelings of resentment toward his brother, asks the questions that boys typically do of their parents, and has a sinister encounter while hiking with his family.

The second tale (based on Franco’s “Peter Parker”) has lonely young Joe (Alec Mansky) meeting a 20-something man, Henry (Henry Hopper), in a convenience store. The two strike up an unlikely friendship based on a mutual appreciation of comic books. Facing social difficulties at school, Joe often retreats to Henry’s house in the afternoon, violating his parents’ rule not to venture too far from home.

Ted’s story, which brings all three characters together, is the only one not directly drawn from Franco’s writings. (It is also the most action-oriented and likely the weakest of the three.) Though formerly his friend, Ted (Calum John) has recently begun tormenting Joe in class, continually provoking him to a play a “game” with him that Joe does not like. Rebuffed by Joe, Ted takes up with Chris, the two often playing together after school. But in the mercurial manner of young boys, Joe is invited back into the group when Chris and Ted sneak Chris’s stepfather’s gun out from its hiding place one afternoon.

The three narratives are more vignettes than traditional, fully-developed plotlines. Like their source material (of which the first two stories are faithful almost to a flaw), they are impressionistic, evoking nostalgia for a sunny, sepia-tinted ’80s boyhood. The critique of independent films that “nothing happens” undoubtedly applies to Yosemite as well, and the stories’ aimlessness, which works relatively well in Franco’s pieces as literature, becomes a bit flat in translation to moving picture. But a sense of unplaceable trouble, some tension in the atmosphere, add depth to the otherwise sleepy, mundane scenes. The boys, innocent and oblivious as they are, may only register a vague threat, but we know what greater dangers lie in wait for them just outside the film’s boundaries.

Meckler, Mansky, and John–newcomers all–are convincing in their roles, capturing in turn the playfulness, sullenness, and vulnerability that are, after all, characteristic of boys that age but that seem to escape other more seasoned actors. Brought together with careful costuming and attentive set design, the film felt authentic enough to my husband, who grew up in a neighboring city just a few years later. More real even than Richard Linklater‘s Oscar-nominated Boyhood, he maintains. I concur.