Now that prolific auto-auteur James Franco has taunted the critical community with adaptations of As I Lay Dying and Child Of God, it’s as good a time as any dip into the gadfly director’s back catalog. Next to split-screen William Faulkner, this 2011 film about the tragic death of Sal Mineo is practically a miniature. Sal depicts the last day in the life of the eponymous Rebel Without A Cause and Exodus star, who—after a decade of declining fame—was murdered outside his West Hollywood apartment in 1976. His final hours are seen as just another episode in a career on the skids: Mineo (Val Lauren) works out; fights to preserve the integrity of a planned directorial effort, McCaffery; struggles with overdue bills; drives around with pal Mikey (Trevor Neuhoff), gets vitamin shots and shares memories of James Dean; plays with his neighbor’s dog; calls his actor friends to encourage them to see his new show; and rehearses for that soon-to-open production of P.S. Your Cat Is Dead, in which he was set to star alongside Keir Dullea (Jim Parrack).
It’s likely that Franco, who has a cameo as stage director Milton Katselas, sees a kindred spirit in his subject, a star whose tough-guy exterior masks a generous attitude, as well as a refusal to conform to what Hollywood expects of him. Mineo’s career had already been hurt by his openness about being gay, and McCaffery’s planned explicitness caused studio jitters. It’s easy to picture Franco in Mineo’s place as the former teen idol makes a pitch for helming a work of hard-edged realism. Still, the hero worship doesn’t quite add up to a dramatic perspective. While repeated play-throughs of Helen Merrill’s “Where Flamingos Fly” cast a woozy, doleful spell, the movie lacks a center. As with much of Franco’s output, it’s hard not to ask: Why this film? Why now? The best answer may be as a showcase for the excellent Lauren (also featured in Franco’s Interior. Leather Bar), an engaging performer who takes the edge off the queasy ironies and inevitabilities that hang over similar-minded celeb-death movies (Last Days, Auto Focus). Despite its modest proportions and chilling finale, Sal is foremost an affectionate tribute, conjuring ample warmth out of relatively little.