‘Yosemite’ Review: James Franco Adaptation Feels Heavy on Mood, Light on Resolution

Three of the actor-author’s short stories intertwine, but don’t quite seem to get where they’re going

The three vignettes that compose “Yosemite” are fraught with threats of dangers that, for the most part, never surface. The coming-of-age tales, based on short stories by James Franco and adapted by writer-director Gabrielle Demeestere (“The Color of Time”), intertwine and, after approximately 80 minutes, the end credits roll. Yet you’re left feeling as if each story needed another chapter before the film could satisfactorily close.

“Yosemite” largely takes place in Palo Alto, Calif., Franco’s hometown. It’s 1985, and three fifth-grade boys are navigating school, difficulties at home, and the fluidity of friendship. Meanwhile, the city has in its midst a mountain lion, the product of urban sprawl invading the creature’s habitat.

The film first focuses on Chris (Everett Meckler), who is hiking with his father Phil (Franco) and younger brother, Alex (Troy Tinnirello), in Yosemite National Park. While wandering, they encounter a fire burning up part of a skeleton — whether it’s animal or human is unclear. (It’s also not terribly clear what exactly they spot amid the flames until the family gets back to their motel room and Chris asks his dad, “Are you going to call the police?”) At one point, we hear a whispered prayer that Chris is only thinking. That the film doesn’t then go full “Tree of Life” is to its benefit.

Bones and some confusion about the way out of the park aside, the moment that will mostly likely make you hold your breath is when Phil, who’s divorced from his sons’ mother, randomly asks his boys, “So you guys know how babies are made?” It turns out to be a sweet if unexpected scene, but the gentle meandering of Part 1 makes it difficult to grasp its point.

YosemiteSaid meandering doesn’t stop there: As the next two stories unfold, Demeestere seems intent on grasping only the atmosphere and general themes of 1986’s superior “Stand by Me” without resolving much of the plots. (This may be due to the content of Franco’s stories, which I haven’t read.) Joe (Alec Mansky) and Ted (Calum John) are the subjects of the film’s final two-thirds, though the pair (and soon Chris) are involved in each other’s segment.

Joe’s tale is marked by molestation, both potential and real — though the latter is the common stuff of adolescence. After Joe is caught stealing from a convenience store, 20ish Henry (Henry Hopper, “Restless”) thwarts a phone call to Joe’s mom by paying for the lifted gum and persuading the store owner to back off. Joe was perusing comics when confronted, so Henry offers a standing invitation to check out the comics collection at his house. Before you can think “Stranger Danger!”, Joe is getting into Henry’s hot rod and then visiting him on a regular basis, at times walking over pebbles along train tracks in bare feet.

Then Ted is introduced sitting next to Joe in class. It’s not long before the two are called outside by their teacher when they disrupt the lesson by playing Ted’s “game” — which entirely entails each guy grabbing the other’s crotch. The focus of Ted’s half-hour more benignly involves his introduction to the Internet by his insomniac dad as well as the boy’s cat, which goes missing. (OK, maybe not so benign.)

A couple of unidentified, shady characters turn up when the pair visit Chris’ house, which adds some confusion to the steady stream of torpor. (It’s relatively safe to assume that one of those shady fellows is the boyfriend of Chris’ mother.) There are threads that link the stories — prayer, death, sex — aspects of which make the boys grow up a little faster than they’d perhaps like.

When combined, all the elements of “Yosemite” render it an odd beast: It’s not boring, exactly, with its subplots and natural performances from even the amateur actors pulling you in. But the film maintains a drowsy tone throughout, and occasionally gets a little heavy-handed with the metaphors. (A black cat crossing the train tracks — really?) Some viewers may find it refreshing that most of the film’s plot strands remain messily untied; others will struggle to justify its existence.

One thing’s for certain: “Yosemite” is miles more accomplished than 2013’s “Palo Alto,” also based on one of Franco’s books. Still, being released during the season when many filmgoers are catching up on Oscar fare can only hurt this movie’s box office and hustle it into obscurity, where it arguably belongs.