You would be foolish to classify or categorize James Franco’s career. The tireless multi-hyphenate’s writing, producing, directing and acting work has touched on myriad subjects and themes, from the triumph of will to individual expression. But the former “Freaks and Geeks” star definitely has an acute awareness of the specific trauma of childhood. He sensitively explored the pains of adolescence in his collection of stories “California Childhood.”
That book serves as the source material for “Memoria,” a dark, brooding and emotionally affecting film that made its world premiere at the Austin Film Festival Sunday afternoon and was picked up for North American distribution soon thereafter by Monterey Media. The propulsive but wandering film is directed by Nina Ljeti, whom Franco met while working on a performance piece in New York City, and Vladimir de Fontenay. Though Ljeti and de Fontenay grew up in Canada and France, respectively, they capture the ennui, frustration and kinetic energy of American adolescence, proving the teenage experience is a rather universal one.
The story focuses on Ivan Cohen (Austinite Sam Dillon), a teenager who drifts through school mired in a mixture of antagonistic friendships and alienation. That otherness extends to his home, where his mother and unsympathetic step-father offer little comfort. We meet Ivan in the film’s opening scenes standing on the Golden Gate Bridge, as he stares into the stormy ocean below.
The movie is told through flashback, and the establishing shots on the shrouded bridge loom over the entire movie. The bridge even reappears like a specter halfway through the film to remind us where the action is likely headed.
As Franco told the audience after the screening, the character of Ivan was based on someone with whom Franco went to school. He described the young man as schizophrenic and troubled, and the directors use motion, music and misdirection to communicate a palpable sense of paranoia and unease. Even when Ivan finds a slight connection with those around him, it becomes severed, as with a bad LSD trip that captures the dark side of the psychedelic experience as well as any in recent movie memory.
Inspired by an empathic teacher played by Franco, Ivan turns to writing to express himself and find catharsis. But it remains unclear whether Ivan will find hope or his salvation in art or whether the demons in his mind and the cruel but unremarkable world around him will take him into the abyss. “Memoria” is a poignant and troubling film, but it rarely telegraphs its shots and treats its young subjects with a slightly removed concern. It deserves a place among some of the best in the “troubled teen” genre.
“Memoria” screens again Monday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Galaxy Highland.