James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative, and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James (and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
This week’s column focuses on “Standing Tall,” which opens on Friday, April 1 in New York and Los Angeles.
James: This movie is crazy French.
Semaj: Catherine Deneuve French.
James: She’s still a queen. How old is she now?
Semaj: Seventy-three. But she looks about 45.
James: This is the second movie the director, Emmanuelle Bercot, has done with Deneuve. They also did “On My Way,” about a grandma and grandson on the road.
Semaj: I guess they like that older female mentor figure/young man kind of dynamic.
James: Yeah, I guess so. The director is also an actor. She won best actress at Cannes for her role in “Mon Roi” opposite Vincent Cassel in 2015.
Semaj: I love Vincent Cassel in “La Haine” and “Irreversible.”
James: “Black Swan.”
Semaj: But Vincent Cassel is not in this movie.
James: No, but he could have been a couple decades ago. The kid in it looks like a young Cassel.
Semaj: Shorter, but yeah — similar young French punk style to what Cassel did in his breakout film, “La Haine.”
James: In America we call it “Hate.”
Semaj: Okay, whatever.
James: That film is actually extremely relevant now, with all this terrorism and unrest in Paris and now Brussels.
Semaj: Dude, we’re supposed to talk about “Standing Tall.”
James: Sorry, I’m just going off on all my French tangents.
Semaj: It’s basically about a young delinquent who keeps fucking up, and is sent through the system again and again for rehabilitation.
James: He’s a little car thief at age fifteen/sixteen.
Semaj: And Deneuve plays the judge who oversees his case and sends him to the youth rehabilitation center.
James: It’s upsetting to see a young kid not getting it again and again.
Semaj: Yeah, he hasn’t been taught anything about discipline, or working at something to get better. He’s just a fuck-up who’s scared to apply himself because he doesn’t want to start at the beginning. Like in the scene where he’s trying to write a simple statement about himself for a job application, he keeps throwing the paper on the floor and lashing out at the teacher.
James: He must have thrown that paper on the floor five times.
Semaj: It’s hard being a beginner.
James: No shit. How do you think I feel? I’ve had to be a beginner in public so many times.
Semaj: What are you talking about?
James: When I write a book, everyone looks at it because I’m an actor, but I’m definitely not as experienced at writing as I am at acting.
Semaj: Dude, that’s your life. Get used to it.
James: I know. I’m just saying, I can feel his pain — I’m a beginner all the time, and in public!
Semaj: Well, he’s a beginner in private because he never learned much of anything except getting in trouble.
James: Because of his mother. She was a young mother and didn’t teach him anything. She was a bad influence.
Semaj: Yeah, she smokes weed around her other child, who’s only about ten, and he gets high from exposure.
James: Not the worst mom in the world, but not the best.
Semaj: Your parents were better.
James: That’s for sure.
Semaj: But you got in trouble when you were his age.
James: Yeah, but I did pretty well in school while I was getting in trouble.
Semaj: But why did both of you from such different backgrounds get in trouble in similar ways?
James: I was socially awkward. Alcohol and drugs seemed to help, until they led to arrests. He just knows nothing else but
getting in trouble. It makes him an interesting character to watch, a teen rebel, but in reality a very sad person.
Semaj: He’s more like your character Daniel in “Freaks and Geeks” than you — he’s got no skills other than breaking the law and
being sort of charming in a teen delinquent way.
James: I think Daniel was a little nicer than this kid. This guy is just a jerk all the time, even with the girl he loves.
Semaj: That’s because he doesn’t know any better. He doesn’t know how to be. We watch him learn, we watch him become humanized.
James: Why do you think this movie gets away with so many clichés about juvenile delinquents? Inept parents, breaking the law, teen love, teen pregnancy, etc.?
Semaj: Partly because it’s French.
Semaj: I’m serious. The fact that it’s foreign makes it slightly unfamiliar even though it’s dealing with character types and tropes that we’ve seen a million times since “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Blackboard Jungle.”
James: I think it’s also because they go into such realistic detail. It’s very French in that sense, like the Dardenne Brothers.
Semaj: They’re Belgian.
James: Anyway, it’s the Cannes darling style: Ultra realistic, handheld cameras, following characters into very urban situations.
Semaj: Yeah, I think you’re onto something. It’s patience with the story and the characters, revealing them at a gradual pace so that not only the shooting style feels realistic, but also the rhythm of life feels realistic. It doesn’t feel manipulated to tell a story, it feels as if it is just happening and the camera is catching it.
James: Like a documentary.
Semaj: Almost, except it is more artful than that. Obviously everything is well-planned in a movie like this or in a Dardenne Brothers film, but it is designed to look like it’s off the cuff.
James: And the acting is terrific. Deneuve is great as always, but the kid is also impressive.
Semaj: Yeah, he’s young, but he holds his own. Even in the long takes, he keeps it going.
James: Do you think people can get better at life?
Semaj: I hope so. I’ve seen it.
Semaj: They hit a bottom, or they realize that they’re getting nowhere by doing what they’re doing, or they have to grow up for someone else, like when they have a child or something. What happened with you?
James: I just got into enough trouble that I had to do something different or I would go to juvenile hall like this kid. That was enough for me.
Semaj: And you started acting?
James: Pretty much. I realized that all my fucking around was also a way to hide from my dreams.
Semaj: What do you mean?
James: I was afraid of failure. Failing at acting, failing at writing, failing at art. So instead I didn’t even try, I just got in trouble instead.
Semaj: And then one day you stopped running and applied yourself.
James: Pretty much. Now I’m addicted to work.