Adapted and expanded from two short stories by James Franco — who’s top-billed, but appears only in the pic’s first third — Gabrielle Demeestere’s debut feature, “Yosemite,” is a low-key drama whose modesty is its own reward. What’s refreshing here is the insistence on viewing events through the perspective of three fifth-grade boys for whom seemingly minor events (a falling out between friends, a lost pet, etc.) can loom much larger than the Major Issues (parental divorce, a family death) that might dominate a more conventional narrative. Following a year of fest travel, Monterey Media plans a U.S. theatrical launch on Jan. 8, with VOD and DVD following in late February — savvy scheduling for a quietly impressive film that would likely get overlooked amid flashier awards-season releases.
The chaptered narrative’s first two parts are drawn from separate Franco stories, which appeared in the 2010 book that provided the source material for Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” (2013); the third part, and the connective tissue between them, are Demeestere’s invention. In the first section, Phil (Franco) takes young sons Chris (Everett Meckler) and Alex (Troy Tinnirello) to the titular national park for a weekend, over which there hovers a certain tentativeness — perhaps tied to the hard-won sobriety Dad mentions when Chris finds his AA medallion. The strained atmosphere is heightened when the trio get lost on a hike, their late return further troubled by the discovery of a mysterious trailside bonfire with a skeleton of unknown origin in it.
The second section shifts attention to Joe (Alec Mansky, also billed in some materials as Alec Wasserman), one of Chris’ classmates in suburban Palo Alto. His parents have split in the wake of tragedy; Joe retreats into comic books, finding common ground there with older loner Henry (Henry Hopper), who enjoys reading aloud and play-acting issues of the “Knight Crimson” comics with this boy less than half his age. There’s a creepy ambivalence to their relationship — is Henry a predator, or just a lonely misfit? — but it nonetheless fills an emotional gap left by Joe’s newly absent father.
Joe has the kind of best-frenemy bond with third classmate Ted (Calum John) in which each constantly goads each other, leading to fights that ultimately get them barred from sitting or playing together. Though he can seem a bully at school, at home Ted lavishes affection on his cat Charlie. When the latter disappears — quite possibly the latest victim of a mountain lion whose sightings are woven throughout via TV news reports — Ted is distraught, and the fragility of a new, parentally brokered friendship with Chris adds to his uncertainty. The discovery of a home handgun unites the three boys at last in an ill-advised “hunt” for the wildcat, raising viewer expectations of catastrophe. But “Yosemite” obstinately skirts all potential melodrama to the very end.
Set in 1985, the movie also soft-pedals its period setting, which is relegated to details that hint at the Silicon Valley area’s emerging technological identity: notably gaming consoles, and the late-night hours that Ted’s insomniac father spends on a primitive early version of the Internet. While some viewers may find it frustrating that the underlying bigger issues of domestic dysfunction aren’t directly dramatized, there’s a subtler integrity to Demeestere’s addressing them only as reflected through the boys’ everyday activities and behaviors.
Resolutely unshowy, sometimes almost too lower-case in its observations, “Yosemite” pays off in an authenticity that pervades both individual scene rhythms and performances — especially those of the newcomers playing 10-year-old protagonists. Packaging follows suit, with an astute focus but very little conspicuous stylistic input from principal tech/design contributors.