Stirring writing and acting helps overcome bland TV-movie production values to bring this true story to life. Even as it turns the central figure into a saint, we recognise the extraordinary nature of what he did.
In 1994, Cuban-born Pedro Zamora (Loynaz) was cast in MTV's Real World because producers wanted to shake things up with a housemate who was HIV-positive. At 21, this bright young man is already an outspoken gay activist, and the reality show house is split when the homophobic Puck (Barr) turns on him. But the rest of the residents come over to Pedro's side, and by the time he dies of Aids-related causes while the programme is airing, they have taken up his campaign.
Structured out of sequence with to-camera interviews, exactly like Black's Milk script, this story unfolds for maximum political and emotional effect. There's a sharp honesty that confronts attitudes and situations face-on, drawing out the deeper themes. So the characters emerge into fascinating people we identify with, most notably Appleman's Judd, a housemate who really catches Zamora's vision for education and activism, even though he's straight.
Even though the film doesn't allow for any character shadings, Loynaz is superb as Zamora. He's an almost flawless hero from start to finish, only tainted by his under-reaction to the rampant homophobia around him, including from his sister (Machado) and other family members who refuse to accept his boyfriend (Johnson). But his message that HIV/Aids is a health issue, not religious or moral, comes through strongly. And his unapologetic approach to his life and work, especially through events shown in flashback, is seriously inspirational.
In fact, this is such a bold, moving story that it's a shame it's told in such a lacklustre way. The direction and editing are clean, but never give the film either sharp edges or a sense of artistry. It's extremely clean and tidy, overlit and shot mainly in close-ups, which limits its scope. The filmmakers also seem to brush off the more unsettling elements in favour of emotional sentimentality, which is admittedly raw, powerful and, in the end, well-earned.
But you do miss the more inventive filmmaking approach of someone like Gus Van Sant.