First time feature writer/director Gabrielle Demeestere brings to the screen a three parts exploration of boyhood based on James Franco’s short stories “Yosemite” and “Peter Parker”, from his book A California Childhood. The film, an indie, low-budget production, was selected to close the 2015 Slamdance Film Festival. Demeestere also won the Tangerine Entertainment Award for Best Female Director.
In Yosemite we meet three boys, Chris, Joe and Ted, as they experience the forming and destruction of friendships. There’s an ongoing sense of dread – the film opening with the news report of a mountain lion sighting. This is indeed where the wild things are. Remarkably, the film doesn’t fall prey to over-romanticising childhood, a period of life so often depicted in soft tones. As William Golding illustrated in his novels, children are governed by the same wild passions as grown ups are.
It’s the 1980s. Chris (Everett Meckler) is on a family trip to the Yosemite National Park with his dad, Phil (James Franco) and his younger brother, Alex (Troy Tinnirello). Despite the breath-taking surroundings the boys are restless and there is tension between father and sons. Chris wanders off on his own and comes across a campfire on which a carcass is burning. Chris is sure that was a human ribcage and insists his dad calls the rangers. It seems the remains belonged to an animal but the sense of gloom continues to pervade the family.
In the second chapter of the film we meet Joe (Alec Mansky). After attempting to steal a packet of sweets from a food store he crosses his path with that of Harry (Henry Hopper). Despite Harry being a complete stranger, the two form and unlikely friendship which constantly threatens to veer towards the ambiguous. Joe seems to be aware of this but when he breaks up with friend Ted, Harry seems to be all he’s got.
Finally, in the third segment we follow Ted (Calum John). After his beloved cat goes missing he fears the mountain lion might have eaten it. Ignored by his father (Steven Wiig), who is too absorbed by the new technology of the dial-up Internet, Ted sets out with Chris and Joe to kill the mountain lion…
Demeestere masterfully engages the audience in a triptych tale of boys growing up and relating to the outside (occasionally dangerous) world. The characters of the three boys feel particularly real and vibrant – there is, of course, a sense of naivety in them but there is also cruelty, compassion and a surprising depth which works well in contrast with their parents’ inability to understand them. The adults in the film are either absent or somewhat alienated, like Ted’s father. The cinematography is particularly good – both evocative and capable of channeling the ongoing sense of dread. The film was DP’ed by Demeestere’s classmates from NYU, Chananun Chotrungroj and Bruce Thierry Cheung.
The script nicely makes use of an episodic structure which doesn’t isolate the single segments but let them feed into each other, all within the frame of the mountain lion sighting. The performances by the young stars are superb – Demeestere manages to show the charms of childhood without over-sentimentalising it. The lingering sense of threat (the mountain lion, Joe walking on the train tracks to reach Harry’s home, the tension between the boys) is present throughout the film but never quite materialises. Yosemite is indeed a gentle, meditative kind of film. Sometimes it’s perhaps excessively so – which is possibly its only fault.
Yosemite is an excellent test for first-time feature writer/director Demeestere, who we are sure you’ll hear again among the rising-filmmakers of tomorrow. Charming and haunting at the same time, the film is the kind that lingers on with you long after watching it.
Yosemite was recently acquired by Monterey Media which plans a US theatrical release this winter.