Sal: Venice Film Review

No-budget biopic about the last days of a half-forgotten star would elicit little interest without multi-tasking director James Franco attached.

James Franco steps behind the camera to recreate tragic star Sal Mineo’s final hours in a indie production premiering at the Venice Film Festival.

Even ardent fans of Hollywood’s polymath pin-up James Franco may be surprised to learn that shoestring-budgeted Sal is actually the Rise of the Planet of the Apes star’s fifth feature-length movie as a director. But while this heartfelt, rough-edged tribute to now largely-forgotten Hollywood actor Sal Mineo isn’t without interest, it’s too small-scale and sketchy for wide theatrical distribution. Further film festival play – perhaps in conjunction with Franco’s Hart Crane biopic The Broken Tower, which itself only premiered in June – will surely follow Sal’s debut in a midnight slot at Venice’s Orizzonti section.

That isn’t in any way to knock the impressive front-and-center performance from curly-maned Val Lauren as Mineo, the diminutive New Yorker who became a 1950s teen idol thanks to movies like Nicholas Ray’s James Dean vehicle Rebel Without A Cause – the film which earned Mineo the first of two Oscar nominations. But as the “Switchblade Kid” aged, his star gradually waned and by 1971 he was barely recognizable under simian make-up in Escape From the Planet of the Apes— foreshadowing Franco’s own involvement with the same revitalized franchise decades later.

PHOTOS: The Scene at the Venice Film Festival 2011

By concentrating on theater and TV, Mineo slowly edged his way back to prominence. When he was stabbed to death in a robbery-motivated murder in February 1976, he was returning home after rehearsals for another L.A. play. His short, eventful life in which Mineo was increasingly open about his homosexuality was chronicled in a 2010 biography by Michael Gregg Michaud, the source material for Stacey Miller’s screenplay.

But Miller and Franco focus only on the period immediately leading up to Mineo’s demise. Only occasional dialogue references to his friend “Jimmy” Dean (whom Franco himself played in a successful 2001 TV-movie) hints at his illustrious past.

PHOTOS: Venice Film Festival: 10 Movies to Know

The model for this approach is clearly the Kurt Cobain-inspired, exposition-light Last Days (2005) by Gus Van Sant, who directed Franco in another biopic of a gay man violently killed in California, Milk (2009). But whereas Van Sant’s picture imagined the traumatic circumstances that led up to the Cobain surrogate committing suicide, Mineo here has no idea that his time is up.

We do, of course, and this knowledge invests Mineo’s banal activities with a certain degree of poignancy and tension. What if Mineo hadn’t dropped coins on the floor of a drugstore? What if he hadn’t had to stop his car at a red light? What might he have achieved if his life had continued?

Unfortunately, while there’s no mistaking Franco’s engagement and empathy with his subject, by the end we’re not really much the wiser about why Mineo should warrant a biopic, even one as selective and shoestring-budgeted as this. Salwas reportedly shot in just nine days, a plausible scenario given its drab video look and occasional audio roughness. Given such constraints, Franco does a decent if unspectacular job in terms of direction. Certainly his reliance on close-ups reduces the need for budget-consuming period detail.

STORY: James Franco Nixes Broadway Debut

When he keeps things simple, Sal works just fine as a showcase for Lauren’s energetic performance. Previously a journeyman supporting player on TV and in film, Lauren is magnetic as an outgoing, chatterbox individual who’s evidently uncomfortable with solitude and silence. Indeed, he’s often so at ease with Miller’s dialogue that one starts wondering if the material might have been better served by being turned into a one-man play. This would save us from Franco’s occasional more “ambitious” flourishes – slow-motion, jittery hand-held camerawork and brief interludes of soundtrack cacophony.

While he may progress further as a director, he really should hand editing duties to more capable hands: Sal pretty much grinds to a complete halt during a fifteen-minute sequence in which we observe Mineo and company rehearsing the play. In this segment Franco himself appears as the well-known stage director Milton Katselas – or rather, we hear his voice while seeing the back of his head – an unnecessary in-joke.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Production company: Rabbit Bandini
Cast: Val Lauren, Vince Jolivette, Jim Parrack, Eva Lauren
Director: James Franco
Screenwriter: Stacey Miller
Story by: Stacey Miller, James Franco, Vince Jolivette
Based on the book by: Michael Gregg Michaud
Producers: Caroline Aragon, Vince Jolivette, Miles Levy
Director of photography: Christina Voros
Production designer: Kirsten Adams
Music: Neil Benezra
Costume designer: Michelle I. Boucher
Editor: James Franco
Sales: Rabbit Bandini, Los Angeles
No rating, 92 minutes