A childhood companion piece to the portrait of adolescence in Palo Alto, writer-director Gabrielle Demeestere‘s debut feature, Yosemite, also is drawn from executive producer James Franco‘s 2010 book of short stories about his Northern California hometown. Smaller and more modest than Gia Coppola‘s evocative 2013 film from the same source, this is an absorbing, highly personal look at the overlapping experiences of three male fifth-graders, exploring evasive father-son connections and the unpredictable fraternity of friendship as the boys deal with death and danger for the first time.
Franco appears as Phil, the father of the 10-year-old title character, Chris (Everett Meckler), in the first of the film’s three interlocking chapters. All of them are set during a short period in fall 1985, when children’s movements in suburban communities were generally less supervised than they are today. Radio and TV reports circulate the news that the once-endangered mountain lion population is on the rebound, causing concern in residential areas where the animals venture in search of food and water.
Phil is a recovering alcoholic whose marriage appears to be over; he takes Chris and his younger brother, Alex (Troy Tinnirello), on a weekend trip to Yosemite National Park. There seems an unspoken hope in Phil that majestic nature will spiritually heal him and aid in the communication that’s lacking with his boys.
Dwarfed by the scenic beauty that surrounds them, the brothers squabble continuously. Chris wanders off the trail during a hike to Yosemite Falls, coming across an unattended campfire with the burning remains of what he’s convinced is a human rib cage. A call to the rangers that evening somewhat reassures the family, yet they head back home silenced and unsettled by the experience.
The second part shifts focus to Chris’ school classmate back in Palo Alto, Joe (Alec Mansky), left in the care of an indifferent babysitter and still struggling to come to terms with the death of his kid brother. While flipping through comic books at a local store, Joe is accused of stealing gum; an older stranger, Harry (Henry Hopper), pays for the item and invites Joe to his house to read comics. Despite the young adult’s friendliness, Joe appears vaguely aware that his intentions are ambiguous. And still he sets out repeatedly on the walk along the train tracks to Harry’s house, as a respite from his aloneness and from the bullying of another classmate, Ted (Calum John).
Ted is the central point of the third part. In tandem with Chris, he mocks his former friend Joe. But when mountain lion sightings in town send ripples of anxiety through the community, and Ted’s pet cat goes missing, the boy’s vulnerability is exposed. His insomniac father (Steven Wiig) is too immersed in the new toy of dial-up Internet distractions to pay much attention, and when the boys set out on a reckless quest to find and kill an encroaching mountain lion, Chris and Ted have a falling out. That brings Ted closer to Joe again, providing both boys with a degree of peace in the wake of their losses.
Yosemite is a contemplative drama, low-key perhaps to a fault. But Demeestere shows acute sensitivity in her understanding of boys and their growing awareness of the world, with its real and imagined menaces. The absent (even when present) parental figures add poignancy to the isolation of each boy, also in terms of their inability, or unwillingness, to articulate feelings to one another. And the performances from the young newcomers are naturalistic and affecting. Tender without tipping over into sentimentality, the three portraits capture a time of both fragility and resilience.
Shot on a RED camera with limber mobility and cool clarity, this is an understated film that evinces a keen sense of place amid the leafy suburbs bordered by wilderness — a setting rendered simultaneously reassuring and uneasy. The movie succeeds on its own quiet terms, binding the three parts together with assurance and tonal consistency to cast a lingering spell.
Production companies: Rabbit Bandini Productions, in association with The Art of Elysium
Cast: James Franco, Henry Hopper, Everett Meckler, Alec Mansky, Calum John, Troy Tinnirello, Steven Wiig
Director-screenwriter: Gabrielle Demeestere, adapted from James Franco’s stories ‘Yosemite’ and ‘Peter Parker’
Producers: Clara Aranovich, Nicolaas Bertelsen, Gabrielle Demeestere, Shruti Ganguly, Sev Ohanian, Paul Bernon, Sam Slater
Executive producers: James Franco, Vince Jolivette, Alexander Akoka, Philippe Akoka, Vitor Baumgratz, Jon Chu, Jennifer Kristen Howell, Morgan Marling, Danielle Schleese, Samantha Schleese, Brittany Weeden
Directors of photography: Bruce Thierry Cheung, Chananun Chotrungroj
Production designer: Maki Takenouchi
Costume designer: Jasmine Hamed
Music: Ryder McNair
Editor: Joe Murphy
Casting: Sarah Kliban
No rating, 82 minutes