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'Sal' Review: James Franco's Day-Dreamy Vision of a Gay Icon

By Amanda Mae Meyncke | Film | November 5, 2013 |

By Amanda Mae Meyncke | Film | November 5, 2013 |

You probably won’t go see this movie, but you should.

James Franco — yes, the over-achieving, sometimes annoying, wildly busy, sometimes really annoying, James Franco — has directed this intimate biopic on the life of Sal Mineo, although that’s a bit misleading, because while it is about his life, it’s really focused on the last day of that life and his untimely death.

The film opens with a real 1976 news report announcing Mineo’s death, and from there we ease into events that bring us to Mineo’s last day on Earth. Mineo’s busy. He’s developing a movie that he’s devoted to directing, he’s working out and rehearsing material for a play. On the last day of his life, Mineo swims with a friend, sees a doctor, rehearses for a play, spends time on the phone with friends, drives around the Hollywood hills and talks to his neighbors. But it’s somehow so much more than that.

While it may sound like hardly the material for a movie, the difference lies in the magnetism and talent of Val Lauren, who plays Mineo. In the hands of a lesser actor, the above scenes are simply things that happen before the ending. But under Franco’s careful direction and Lauren’s total committal to the role, Mineo is properly shown as a magnetic man deeply connected to those around him, beautiful, talented and interesting. It’s easy to see where Franco’s obsession came from, and how Lauren submerged himself in getting the details correct.

Much of the film is shot very tightly, close-ups of faces, which at first is annoying but as Val Lauren begins to unfold his magic, it’s hard to get enough. Lauren’s performance takes the film from biopic on the cheap to something far more personal, intimate and revealing. Val Lauren’s face is worthy of contemplation, and his ability to completely draw you in at every moment is continually surprising. Genuine emotion is difficult to accept, the desire is always to dismiss it somehow or smirk to yourself, but the film transforms very early on, when Lauren fails to hold back tears when telling a friend on the phone that he’d finally been given the chance to direct the film he’d been working towards. This was just the start of the melancholy phone calls, the moody and atmospheric tone of the film, the tendency of human nature to ascribe more sorrow and beauty to things once we know that it’s all coming to an end.

It is impossible to think about the movie without nervously overthinking the movie through some kind of Franco-filter. Franco and Lauren also collaborated on Interior. Leather Bar, a strange 40 minute gay sex romp that blurs the lines between reality and moving image, and having seen that film first, I was very surprised by how talented Lauren actually is, in Sal. James Franco clearly has an obsession with Rebel Without a Cause, from hosting an entire art gallery show dedicated to artistic impressions of the film, to playing Dean himself in a film, to making this film. I’m sure I’ve missed a million other smaller papers, novels, plays, and films that Franco has dedicated to Rebel, but it’s clear the film is a huge inspiration for him and his artistic friends.

Yes, there are a few rough edges in the film, the font choice and way the credits are handled along with all interstitial titles are completely last-minute and feel as if they simply selected whatever the pre-set was in iMovie. But then, I started to think — maybe Franco chose these to teach us a lesson about slavish devotion to aesthetics? — but wait, maybe he would just laugh, as if such menial decisions are below him, and he hadn’t even noticed the font. In any case, the other faltering areas of the film tend to be the more noticeable moments that remind the audience that the film was shot cheaply — driving shots with far too many modern day things visible, etc. But given how hard the rest of the film works to be seen and believed, it feels snippy to focus too hard on the shortcomings.

Because movies do exist to educate and grow our understanding of the world around us, the film laid to rest a misunderstanding I myself had had, which was that Mineo was stabbed by some enraged lover in a kind of squalid love affair-gone-wrong in West Hollywood (then, and now, the homosexual center of Los Angeles). But no, Mineo was knifed in a robbery gone wrong, stabbed accidentally just-so in the heart, ending his life swiftly. Wrong place, wrong time, and the cruelest of all circumstances — happenstance.

The movie is sparse on big picture stuff, though we get a little glimpse here and there into Mineo’s history and struggles, the difficulty he had in getting work, the struggle to come out from under his own shadow as an Oscar nominee. Ultimately, the movie did what any good biopic is supposed to do, it made me curious about the reality of Mineo’s life. I want to know more about this man and his world, and I guess I have James Franco to thank for that. Damn.

Amanda Mae Meyncke writes about movies and ideas, in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter, now.

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