It's hard to imagine a more natural subject for a biopic than Sal Mineo. The Bronx-born son of an immigrant coffin-maker, Mineo earned two Oscar nominations — alongside mentor James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause when he was 16 years old, and five years later for Exodus — and had a brief but successful career as a pop star in the late 1950s. Mineo also was among the first major film actors to come out as gay (in the late '60s). That openness didn't help his career, and neither did Hollywood's persistence in typecasting him first as a troubled teen and later as an unhinged criminal. In the throes of yet another attempt at a comeback, Mineo was murdered by a stranger behind his West Hollywood apartment in 1976.
Actor-turned-director James Franco's film Sal focuses not on Mineo's lifelong personal struggles but on the last, largely uneventful day of the actor's life. In addition to movies, Franco makes everything from fine art to literary fiction to Motown-inspired music, and he has taught filmmaking at New York University and the University of Southern California. Unfortunately, Sal is full of seemingly random and ineffective camera work in scenes that meander aimlessly and do little to illuminate Mineo's storied life. Stage and indie-film actor Val Lauren is convincing enough in the title role to make you wish he had better material with which to work. You have to admire Franco's fearlessness, but with Sal he's made an art film that's just not artfully done. — KEN KORMAN