Austin Film Fest ’11 Review: James Franco’s “Sal” is a Portrait With a Tight Frame

The actor who once played James Dean becomes a director of the story about the final day of his famous friend in a film that lives and dies by...

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It’s unlikely the majority of the thousand-plus people that stood outside the Paramount Theater for the Austin Film Festival screening of “Sal” weren’t likely there to see the first post-collegiate movie directed by a kid fresh out of NYU Film School, but as James Franco would say in his introduction to the unconventional biopic of Sal Mineo, that’s exactly what they would be getting.

Followers of Franco’s know that it’s hardly the first film he’s helmed and in fact, the reason AFF likely got the North American premiere of his latest was because they presented the premiere of his second film, “The Ape” in 2005. Franco has come a long way as a filmmaker since then, though his budgets and his scope haven’t, which makes “Sal” an exercise in working within limitations as much as it is an impression of the ‘Rebel Without a Cause” actor on the final day of his life.

Even if you weren't aware of Mineo's grizzly end, as anyone of Franco's age might not be given that his random stabbing outside of his West Hollywood apartment occurred in 1976, "Sal" quickly brings audiences up to speed with a real newscast from the era, showing the matinee idol shrouded under dark glasses and a frizzy beard and hairdo appropriate for the time. This isn't the Mineo we meet moments later, played by Val Lauren. Free of hair anywhere below his sideburns, he demonstrates his vitality in the weight room, tanned and taut as he lifts barbells over his head. There's nothing extraordinary about it, which sets the tone for the rest of the piece – the mundane actions that make up Mineo's day all defined by the fact that their lasts, not firsts and since Mineo doesn't know this himself, they ideally have an insight into who he really was.

SalValLaurenAlthough lacking an overt dramatic pull overall, Franco is able to keep things interesting with such a treatment, throwing off different parts of Mineo's life into his daily routine. His future is outlined in a dinner at the Palm with his agent where he's trying to get a gritty film about gay life he'd direct off the ground, his present looking dim in a community theater production of "P.S. Your Cat is Dead" and his past bubbling up in phone conversations with friends, some warm, some desperate, to get them to show up for opening night. A reference to his pal "Jimmy Dean" innocently emerges in a car ride over to the doctor's office and a nod to his vibrant gay lifestyle is clear from a rowdy evening at the club. (During the post-screening Q & A, Lauren explained that a sex scene was shot, but not included, which falls in line with the general addition by omission.)

Franco avoids the trap of making this feel as though he’s checking off a list of Mineo’s most notable moments or qualities, thanks largely to the performance of Lauren, who occasionally lays on the Bronx accent a little thick, but makes up for it with a performance that’s measured yet appears to be effortlessly unrestrained. He’s given the material to play the highs of Mineo’s exuberance, showing the spark of what made him get into show business, and the lows of when he’s not the center of attention, edging out of the center of the frame in scenes of loneliness in either his empty apartment or a stage full of performers in a production that’s beneath him.

Still, Franco’s portrait of the actor is closed off in ways beyond it’s 24-hour window, photographed largely in close-ups that ironically puts more distance between Mineo and the audience – the context of his death looming above every action, but the context of one very average day in his life not nearly strong enough to sustain a feature. When “Sal” ends with footage of the real-life Mineo conducting an interview as well as another newscast showing the capture of his killer Lionel Ray Williams, a pizza deliveryman who had no connection to him, there’s the shock that comes with a senseless murder, but not necessarily the meaning since the fleeting impressions of the actor’s life aren’t fully formed enough to feel the full depth of his loss.

In other words, “Sal” is not all that different from most other films from directors fresh out of film school – ambitious, accomplished and with room to improve. Given the filmmaker's commitment and connections, that's going to happen sooner than later.

"Sal" does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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