It’s 1985, and for three boys living in Palo Alto, CA it might just be the last year they spend as kids. There’s a mountain lion wandering suburbia, but the wild predator is the least of their concerns.
Chris (Everett Meckler), his younger brother, and his father (James Franco, who also produced) go hiking in Yosemite National Park. There’s beauty here, but there’s also lessons about the birds and the bees, the sight of a burning skeleton, and the very real fear of being lost. Back in town, Joe (Alec Mansky) is dealing with a recent loss he doesn’t quite understand, and in the process he’s finding himself in all kinds of trouble. Shoplifting and classroom fights see him lectured by teachers, but the kindness of a stranger – a man who invites him to his place for comics and soda – offers Joe something of a sanctuary. Ted (Calum John) has been picking fights with Joe at school, but it’s due more to uncertainty than any degree of real malice. He doesn’t understand Joe’s struggle and along with others knows only how to antagonize, but when he finds himself in possession of a gun the opportunity to reassert their friendship rears its misguided head.
Yosemite, written and directed by Gabrielle Demeestere (and reportedly inspired by Franco’s book A California Childhood) is less of a narrative than a look into a time and place populated by young boys approaching the end of innocence. Where Stand By Me pressed its characters’ faces into the stink of mortality, the boys here have yet to even hear the news about a dead body down by the train tracks. Life’s darker turns are ahead, but Chris, Joe, and Ted move ever forward, blissfully unaware of the dangers and impending knowledge crouched just outside their peripheral vision.
The three boys cross paths, but the film divides itself into sections devoted to each before bringing them together more explicitly. They play, interact with others, and find themselves alone at times, and even at a brisk eighty minutes the film lets them meander unattached to a particular plot. It avoids feeling aimless though as Demeestere’s camera captures them honestly and succeeds, even in the boys’ most mundane moments, to capture the time and place equally well. This is a boy’s life. I grew up two thousand miles away from Palo Alto, but I’ve walked these streets, followed these train tracks, and struggled with emotional distance between friends before I even knew what the hell that meant.
That fly-on-the-wall authenticity is aided by the three young actors who never appear to be trying too hard to “act.” This is a first feature for each of them, but they give natural, unobtrusive performances, and while they’re all fine Mansky stands out with his subtle handling of his character’s more seismic journey.
Adults are a fractured lot glimpsed mostly in isolation – a father on the outs with his wife, a single mom temporarily replaced by a babysitter, another father whose insomnia sees him only at night as he connects with strangers over dial-up modem – but while would-be guardians misunderstand or just plain miss what’s happening with the kids it’s only the stranger, Henry (Henry Hopper), who shows an interest and makes an effort.
Is he a threat? Perhaps, but he’s just one of many in the daily life of an eleven year-old boy. The media and teachers are concerned solely with the mountain lion – due mostly to the primal nature of a beast intruding into their civilized community – but it’s possible they’ve simply forgotten their own childhoods spent making irresponsible decisions and taking unwise risks. To the boys those behaviors are just called free-time, but even if they don’t see it the twin specters of death and sex are peeking over the horizon with adulthood in tow.
Oblivious innocence has an end date, and it’s coming fast, but for now an invite to watch The Dark Crystal at a friend’s house might yet carry more weight than the pull of the dark unknown.
Yosemite opens this Friday in NYC before expanding to LA on January 8th, 2016.