Following Palo Alto (2013) and Yosemite (2015), Memoria concludes the trilogy of films adapted from James Franco’s Palo Alto short stories. Returning as executive producer for the final installment, Franco has again selected novice feature directors for the project, which was originally announced at the launch of a successful 2013 Indiegogo fundraising campaign.
Although the film should attract attention from fans of Franco’s characteristically diverse body of work, at just 70 minutes it comes across as rather too tentative and brief to amount to much more than a sensitively observed but ultimately inconclusive coming-of-age narrative. Clearly the limited scope of Franco’s source material fits comfortably within Memoria’s modestly scaled structure, but too often writer-directors Nina Ljeti and Vladimir de Fontenay neglect to adequately seize upon a thematic structure that implies a more encompassing significance to the characters’ struggles than the plot actually discloses.
The highly episodic first act may contribute to this underlying issue, as their protagonist quickly matures from a child to a young man in the space of just 20 minutes. Beginning with his childhood growing up on the grungier side of largely affluent Palo Alto, Calif., Ivan’s (Sam Dillon) detachment from his Russian mother (Julia Emelin) and resentment towards his overbearing stepfather (Matt McCoy) mark him as a habitual loner. By the time he reaches 17, surrounded by a small clique of stoner and skater friends that includes bad boy Alex (Thomas Mann), hot-headed bully Chris (Bo Mitchell) and tough chick Nina (Ruby Modine), he still feels isolated and awkward. Maybe it’s due to his experience growing up as the child of an immigrant unfamiliar with American suburban norms, or because he still feels abandoned by his military-veteran father, who returned to Russia when Ivan was only five years old.
Frequently skipping school while swathing himself in a halo of pot smoke, he attempts to remain below adults’ radar, but his teacher Mr. Wyckoff (Franco) wants to know why he hasn’t been attending English class and cautions Ivan to try and submit some classwork to avoid failing. Shy and remote, he avoids girls after previous disappointments, then reacts with shock and resentment when Nina expresses feelings for him after years of platonically hanging out. His fitful attempts at writing poetry for Wyckoff’s class yield encouraging results, but conflicts at home and school push him closer to a crisis, as his already tenuous relationships fray even further.
Memoria’s early scenes reveal an almost lyrical quality, as young Ivan (Kaden Ecklund) sneaks out of the house to go swimming alone in a nearby pond at dusk, or plays with his toy warplanes, imagining the return of his absent father. In his formative years as a middle-schooler, his sometimes self-conscious attempts to fit in with his classmates or attract the attention of a pretty girl evoke familiar growing pains, but by the time he reaches adolescence, Ivan has become almost destructively self-absorbed. While this type of character arc isn’t unusual for teen dramas, it lacks any really significant developments that would set Ivan apart from his peers, many of whom are even less engaged than he is.
Franco collaborator Ljeti and co-director de Fontenay make some initially interesting stylistic choices, including restrictive framing necessitated by an atypical 4:3 aspect ratio, non-narrative flashback sequences and almost exclusively handheld lensing. The film’s overall aesthetic never regains its early contemplative qualities, however, settling instead for conventional low-budget production values that aren’t improved by generic settings that reduce Franco’s typically verdant hometown to a series of nondescript streets and ugly stucco homes.
At the same time, the filmmakers’ scripting often is weighed down by unimaginative representations of teenage conflict. Part of the challenge also lies with Dillon’s restrained lead performance, which attempts to rely more on brooding reticence than the actor has the maturity to adequately convey, although the unfiltered teen dialogue remains consistently authentic, even when it’s almost gratuitously crude. However, the implication that Ivan’s inability to contemplate adulthood is rooted in pervasive memories about the loss of his father (who is never depicted onscreen) remains too insubstantial to sufficiently define his character.
Another issue is that Mann’s instinctively self-destructive Alex, an intriguing departure from his Me, Earl and the Dying Girl good-guy image, emerges as more interesting and impactful than Ivan’s constant self-pitying. Franco’s brief appearances as a caring and inquisitive teacher come across as perhaps too concerned with Ivan’s welfare, but that occasional, uncomfortable tension is never fully resolved.
With Franco preparing for the production or release of a wide-ranging slate of high-profile acting and directing projects, the inclination to reference the diminutive Palo Alto Stories trilogy may diminish, although the distinct thematic similarities running throughout the films seem likely to re-emerge in any comparably personal projects.
Production company: Rabbit Bandini Productions
Cast: Sam Dillon, Thomas Mann, Ruby Modine, Keith Stanfield, Miles Heizer, Bo Mitchell, Teo Halm, James Franco, Julia Emelin, Matt McCoy
Directors-writers: Nina Ljeti, Vladimir de Fontenay
Producers: Iris Torres, Sev Ohanian
Executive producers: James Franco, Jennifer Kristen Howell, Vince Jolivette, Morgan Marling
Director of photography: Pedro Gomez Millan
Production designer: Katie Shattuck
Costume designer: Angie Lavalla
Editor: John Paul Horstmann
Music: Ian Hultquist
Rated R, 70 minutes