The utterly dispiriting Memoria begins and ends with high school student Ivan (Sam Dillon) contemplating jumping into the water from the Golden Gate Bridge, his mind flashing back to a happy childhood memory of swimming in a lake.
Between these bookends, the film portrays a group of teenagers carelessly wandering through adolescence somewhere in Northern California, most of them without a hint of the conscience that differentiates Ivan from the rest of the pack. The behavior of these adrift adolescents is shocking to witness, particularly for the adult wondering whether the depiction of disaffected youth here – the reckless drug-taking, the clinical attitude towards sex, the misogynistic treatment of women, the casual disrespect for others – is simply fashionable nihilism. But if Memoria accurately represents this generational stratum, it raises a disturbing question, one asked with compassion rather than judgment: What’s the matter with kids today?
Based on three short stories by multi-hyphenate James Franco, who tackled similar territory in his Palo Alto short story collection (adapted into a 2013 film), the narrative swirls and swirls within itself, never really taking you from one place to the next. It often feels like a maelstrom of nothingness. Perhaps that’s the point - this is how Alex (Thomas Mann) feels, how he experiences his life. It’s tricky terrain, and co-directors de Vladimir de Fortenay and Nina Ljeti sometimes succeed (you’ll hold your breath during an afternoon acid trip that later hits the highway), but frequently lack a clear vision of how to pull it off. When Alex envisions a deadend future for himself in a writing assignment for a class taught by the film’s only grounded character (Franco, who also played a schoolteacher in Palo Alto, albeit an ethically challenged one), you better understand the depth of his despair. You can only hope that some godsend intercedes to keep him from taking that fatal step forward.
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