Following his Hart Crane biopic “The Broken Tower,” self-styled professional dabbler James Franco examines the tragically shortened life of another gay artist in his unenlightening but not ungenerous portrait of Sal Mineo. Different from “Tower” in the way it limits its focus to its subject’s final hours, “Sal” is a generally listless affair in which incident and insight are in short supply — a problem offset to some degree by Val Lauren’s warm, gregarious turn as the onetime teen heartthrob who never hit his Hollywood stride. Like Franco’s other extracurricular projects, pic will have trouble breaking out beyond fest and fringe exposure.
Based on Michael Gregg Michaud’s biography of Mineo, Stacey Miller’s screenplay (with a story credited to Miller, Franco and producer Vince Jolivette) makes no effort to flesh out the life story of the actor best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in “Rebel Without a Cause.” That generation-defining 1955 classic also wound up defining Mineo, who found himself typecast in troubled-teen roles that left him with nothing to grow into.
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In his 30s he sought to make his comeback in theater, producing the 1971 play “Fortune and Men’s Eyes,” whose gay themes were consistent with the actor’s own public acknowledgment of his homosexuality. He had just returned home from rehearsals for “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead,” in which he played a bisexual burglar, on the night he was stabbed to death in an alley behind his West Hollywood apartment — Feb. 12, 1976.
Franco’s fifth feature kicks off with an old news clip announcing Mineo’s death before rewinding the clock about 24 hours and following Sal (Lauren) as he goes about the last day of his life. In that respect the pic shares some conceptual parallels, if not a comparable level of ambition, with “A Single Man” and especially “Last Days” (directed by frequent Franco collaborator Gus Van Sant), which similarly focused on its protagonist’s mundane routine.
Neither of those films, however, lavished quite so much attention on their characters’ bare torsos as “Sal” does here, observing for long, arid stretches as Sal works out at a gym, visits a day spa with a friend and lazes around at home in various states of half-dress. But while he’s often shown to be irresponsible and perpetually cash-strapped, Sal is also depicted as admirably passionate and hard-working. We see him arguing to retain the touchy gay content of a script he’s trying to sell; making detailed notes in the margins of his scripts; and, in one protracted sequence, rehearsing “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead” opposite the young Keir Dullea (Jim Parrack), under the direction of Milton Katselas (Franco, seen from the back).
The ticking clock keeps these indolent, indifferently paced scenes from feeling as dull as they should, and the film does achieve a sad sense of time slipping away, rendered all the more poignant by Lauren. Though perhaps a bit thinner and more ripped than the baby-faced actor he’s playing, the curly haired thesp presents Sal as good-natured, eternally optimistic and clearly committed to using his art to keep gay rights and awareness in the cultural conversation.
Pic arguably missteps by placing too strong an emphasis on this latter theme, to the point where it not only somewhat diminishes Mineo as a person, but almost seems to endorse the initial rumors that Mineo’s killing was sex-related. Franco isn’t yet skilled enough at unvarnished realism to avoid a sense of cause and effect between Sal’s daytime activities and his terrible end, portrayed here discreetly but disturbingly.
While “Sal” means to honor its subject, it’s too clunky and amateurish to really illuminate him. Absent any context apart from the news footage that bookends the picture, the illusion that we’re watching Mineo, as opposed to a director’s hazy, unfocused projection of what Mineo might have said and done, never really takes hold.
Tech credits are passable, Christina Voros’ handheld camerawork looking low-grade enough to suggest the pic was indeed shot in 1976 and has only been recently excavated. Neil Benezra’s music boasts some droning ambient flourishes that, along with shots of Sal driving at night, push the film into oppressive mood-piece territory.