AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Dave Wilson | October 25, 2011
Director: James Franco
Writers: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Stacey Miller, Michael Gregg Michaud (book)
Starring: Val Lauren, Vince Jolivette, Jim Parrack, Stacey Miller, James Franco
Sal, the new film directed by James Franco, is a spare, bare bones look at the last day in the life of actor Sal Mineo (Val Lauren), who we know best for his work opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1954). Mineo, who was also openly gay, had more or less faded into obscurity by 1976. In Franco’s film, he lives alone in a small West Hollywood apartment and appears to be on the verge of a comeback–at least in his own mind. He’s just clinched a deal to direct his first film, an adaptation of McCaffery, a controversial pulp novel about teen gangs and sexual abuse, and he’s in the last days of rehearsal as one of the leads in a play called P.S. Your Cat is Dead! that will open at the Westwood Playhouse. But Mineo will never realize these dreams. At day’s end, he is stabbed in an alley outside his apartment, the random victim of a senseless attack.
Franco, his co-writers, and actor Val Lauren start with material gleaned from the 2010 biography by Michael Gregg Michaud, but thankfully, instead of spinning out a tedious biopic, they create a patient, deliberately paced character sketch.
Franco’s primary strategy is to draw us into Mineo’s personal space through tightly framed close-ups that invite us to observe and absorb something of Mineo’s personality. We see everything register on his face and in his gestures. We are poised by his side as he moves through the normal rhythms of his day, which includes every beat, from the mundane to the revelatory. We are just as likely to see him working out, or eating, or lovingly burying his face in the coat of his neighbor’s small dog, as we are to see him laughing, arguing, reminiscing about James Dean, or sitting in bed, silently scrawling notes on a draft of his screenplay.
As Mineo, Val Lauren is compulsively watchable, and this film is worth seeing for his work alone. Lauren truly inhabits this character and what emerges is a portrait of a warm, driven, uniquely optimistic soul with an almost childlike ability to live completely in the moment, full of dreams and plans, but somehow free from regrets.
Unfortunately, the film is far too dependent upon our knowledge that Mineo will die at the end of the day. For Franco, every moment has equal weight. While much of what we see resonates with this knowledge, some of this material is routine and unremarkable. A little more selectivity and shaping, some excision of the dull, would intensify our connection with Mineo.