You can knock his prankish dilettantism all you want, but James Franco — that actor/director/writer/boho curio — has this going for him: The not-bad short stories of his books Palo Alto and A California Childhood have now been adapted into two quite good films. Like Gia Coppola's Palo Alto (2013), a lyric and biting evocation of contemporary well-to-do teendom, Gabrielle Demeestere's Yosemite mines Franco's fiction for its most vital quality: his unsentimental depiction of youthful insecurity, this time among fifth-graders.
Yosemite's three young leads (played by Everett Meckler, Alec Mansky, and Calum John), all boys, find it easiest to bruise through life a little cut off from each other, not letting anyone close, keeping their relationships studiedly hostile. They shoplift, bully each other, call each other “dickless.” Brothers shove brothers without clear in-the-moment cause; friends stalk off together for adventures in the humped green hills of Palo Alto despite seeming to detest one another.
Franco has stripped nostalgia and innocence from his stories of growing up, except for nostalgia for innocence: His characters have begun to suspect that people as a rule are terrible to each other — and also begun to experiment with terribleness themselves — but there's always a hint that perhaps they might right themselves still, that maybe kindness isn't exclusive to suckers. The drama in Palo Alto, on page and screen, and now in Yosemite, lies in whether or not the empathy that we feel, as readers and filmgoers, ever has some corresponding analogue in the stories. Can his people come to care like we do?
Yosemite is a smaller picture than Palo Alto. It's less dreamy, less pressing, determined to let us work out for ourselves what matters in any moment. The look is flat, with no fuss or flash; even the early scenes set in Yosemite National Park are shot and cut for naturalism rather than nature. The kids and dad trooping along a park trail are too tense to revel in the beauty around them, and the camera honors their disengagement, showing us only what they see. The hikers are a dad (played by Franco) and his two sons (Meckler and Mansky); Franco is fine, but the child performers embody bored misery and put-on aloofness without apparent calculation — rather than actors working from a script, they just seem like your distant younger cousins sulking through some family get-together. The film itself has that feeling, like its scenes are a life you're observing rather than staged approximations.
On the drive up to the park, we learn that the father is a recovering alcoholic and that he's estranged from the mother — and the boys, too. (“So, you guys know how babies get made?” he asks, to make them uncomfortable.) In the park, in a pair of heartsick scenes, we learn that the estrangement is spreading to the sons — one goes so far as to pray against the other. These characters may not believe in each other, but they're still so young that they believe in something: fervent prayer in the film's first third, comic books in its second. Yosemite closely follows one of the boys for each of its three acts. In the second, Joe (Mansky) is the first character in the film to reach out to another person and make some kind of connection.
That person, though, is a shifty, charismatic adult (Henry Hopper) who is awfully quick to invite a ten-year-old back to his house. There, the kid and the grown-up read aloud from their favorite comics, investing everything in them with histrionic superhero dialogue. (Yosemite is set in the 8-bit early Eighties, before nearby Silicon Valley became a boomtown; the bombastic and declamatory comic-book speeches were made up for the movie but are precisely true to their era.) These excellent scenes put viewers off balance: On the one hand, this dude is creepy; on the other, he's introduced to this boy a liberated enthusiasm rare in Yosemite, in Franco's work, or in American masculinity.
The final third is an invention of Demeestere, whose script expands upon Franco's book. Ted (John), a bully whom the brothers are stuck with thanks to proximity, urges all three boys into the hills near their homes to hunt down the mountain lion that we've been hearing about on news reports throughout the film. The crew strides forth with comic solemnity, and there's real suspense about what kind of story this will be: something funny? Something tragic? The answer holds to the tenets of Franco's fiction, which, like kids' lives, rarely builds to a smooth and satisfying climax. The question isn't whether or not they will triumph in some way — it's whether they'll come back better equipped to care for themselves, each other, or anyone at all.