You can knock his prankish dilettantism all you want, but James Franco -- that actor/director/writer/boho curio -- has this going for him: The not-bad short stories of his books Palo Alto and A California Childhood have now been adapted into two quite good films. Like Gia Coppola's Palo Alto (2013), a lyric and biting evocation of contemporary well-to-do teendom, Gabrielle Demeestere's naturalistic slice-of-life Yosemite mines Franco's fiction for its most vital quality: his unsentimental depiction of youthful insecurity, this time among fifth graders.
Yosemite's three young leads (played by Everett Meckler, Alec Mansky and Calum John), all boys, find it easiest to bruise through life a little cut off from each other, not letting anyone close, keeping their relationships studiedly hostile. They shoplift, bully each other, call each other "dickless." Brothers shove brothers without clear in-the-moment cause; friends stalk off together for adventures into the humped green hills of Palo Alto despite seeming to detest one another.
The child performers embody bored misery and put-on aloofness without apparent calculation -- rather than actors working from a script, they just seem like your distant, younger cousins sulking through some family get-together. Franco has stripped nostalgia and innocence from his stories of growing up except for nostalgia for innocence: His characters have begun to suspect that people as a rule are terrible to each other, and also begun to experiment with terribleness themselves, but there's always a hint that perhaps they might right themselves still -- that maybe kindness isn't exclusive to suckers. The drama in Palo Alto, on page and screen, and now in Yosemite, lies in whether or not the empathy that we feel, as readers and filmgoers, ever has some corresponding analogue in the stories. Can his people come to care like we do?