In 10 Words or Less
Like a Lifetime movie with more cursing and less whining
Likes: A good "overcoming the odds" story
Dislikes: "urban" films, the stereotypical "black woman attitude"
Hates: Addicts, stupid people
My review of this film is sure to be a bit biased, as I am not a big fan of films set amongst the poor and ignorant, no matter what part of the rainbow they are from, and have seemingly managed to avoid almost every film Queen Latifah's ever made, with the exceptions of The Bone Collector, House Party 2 and Jungle Fever. But after saying that, I must admit, Life Support is not a bad film. It's not a great film, but certainly better than I could have expected.
In his feature directorial debut, writer/director Nelson George (CB4) delivers a story inspired by his own sister, an AIDS awareness advocate who's fighting the disease herself. Portrayed by Latifah in the film, she's a street-hardened mother of two looking to make up for the mistakes she's made, by stopping others from making those same missteps. To do so, she has to battle through her daily aches and pains, and the thoughtless behavior of those in her Brooklyn neighborhood.
It might be an easier fight than the one she has on her hands with her older daughter, Kelly (newcomer Rachel Nicks.) Having grown up with a drug-addicted mother, who then gave her up to her grandmother, she has a lot of resentment toward Ana, and toward her man Slick (Wendell Pierce, "The Wire"), who gave her the virus, along with a younger daughter. A smart girl, Kelly can match her mother's attitude raised eyebrow for raised eyebrow, and she's been raised by her grandmother to not be like her mother, which makes for a very cold relationship with plenty of hurtful words thrown about.
Ana and Kelly's worlds come together though when Kelly's HIV-positive friend Amare (Evan Ross, Pride) goes missing, without his medication. Unable to find him among the users he hangs with, she turns to her mom, whose connections in the HIV world might be able to help. It's more work than Ana and her pained feet should be doing, but helping others is not only her calling, its a chance to get in good with Kelly.
George does a good job of keeping the story moving, avoiding the pitfalls of emotional filmmaking seen in lesser (read: Lifetime) films, by blending Ana and Kelly's stories with tales from the afflicted, love-letter views of his hometown Brooklyn and a subplot (though not entirely complete) about the "down low brothers." He's aided in his effort by a talented cast led by Latifah. It's in no way a glamour role, but the meaty nature of the story lets her show she's more than able to power a quiet dramatic film the way she's been known to in her boisterous comedies. It's the kind of performance you can describe as real; balancing comedy and drama to quality effect. I'll restrain myself from claiming it could redefine her career, but it should help bring her better scripts than Bringing Down the House.
As Kelly, Nicks is equally impressive, displaying strong emotion through subtle facial expressions, while Pierce gives Slick a quiet grace and understated power, grounding the film in a reality rather than the fable it could have been. That's closer to the audience than Ross' movie-style illness, complete with breath-stealing coughs. While this may be entirely true to the life of an AIDS victim, it's the kind of dying that's been seen too often in movies to take entirely seriously. This is the problem with almost all films about how an individual suffers, as it can be hard to relate unless you've been there. It's the sad reality of the disease that's actually a problem here, as the true-to-life factors, including the stunningly ignorant attitudes the neighborhood women have towards the virus, come across as almost cartoonish. It's hard to believe people could be so stupid, but they probably are.
One of the most impressive parts of the film, outside of the three leads' performances, is the way George was able to capture the stories of real AIDS sufferers to use during the support session scenes. Leaning heavily on documentary style, these scenes blur the line between what's true and what's movie, as Latifah sounds no different than the real people dealing with AIDS on a daily basis. A lesser actress wouldn't have been able to pull it off, and a lesser filmmaker would have struggled to make it work in the film.
A one-disc release, this DVD is packed in a standard keepcase, and features a static anamorphic widescreen main menu, with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust languages, and check out the extras. There are two audio options, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and Spanish 2.0, while subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish, along with closed captioning.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer on this film is decent, but it's not the sharpest film I've seen lately, and it suffers from a good deal of excessive grain, especially in darker moments and interior scenes. If this was intentional, to make the film more "real," mission accomplished, but it looks fuzzy. The film's color, which tends to be dark and cast almost entirely in a yellowish sunset tone, is solid, but the level of detail could be much higher. No digital artifacts or dirt or damage are obvious.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is nice and clear, delivering the dialogue crisply, with strong music as well. A "talky" fllm, the mix is straightforward, but some nice atmospheric effects are spread through the side and rear speakers, putting you on the noisy Brooklyn streets.
The spread of extras is good for an HBO movie, starting with a commentary by George, who shows genuine enthusiasm for talking about his film. He covers almost everything you'd want to know about the film, including the back story of his sister, production, on-set stories, technical issues and his actors, while having a good time remembering it all. It's not a chore for him to discuss Life Support and it's no chore to listen to him.
His willingness to let the audience in on his filmmaking spreads to his 21-minute video diary, which shows more of his sense of humor and his positive energy. It's a very open look at the film's production on the streets of Brooklyn, and a well-edited one at that, as George's direct-address entries to the camera are mixed with on-set footage.
More behind-the-scenes material is found in "The Story Behind the Story," a six-minute featurette with George, Latifah and Andrea Williams, George's sister and the inspiration for Ana. This looks and feels like a promotional piece for the film, and as it's the only involvement from Latifah (who's sitting with Williams), it's likely EPK material and slightly fluffy because of it. A four-minute interview with Williams is more direct, as she talks about her life, what she does and the reality of AIDS in the black community.
There's also a short two-minute deleted scene from the support group that shows more about the emotions the virus brings on.
The Bottom Line
I didn't think I'd like Life Support, viewing it as a grittier version of the female victim empowerment films that "Television for Women," spews out, but a solid filmmaking effort and excellent performances by Latifah, Nicks and Pierce help the film rise above expectations. While at it's core, the concept is not one you haven't seen before, it's done as well or better than anything that's been seen to this point. The DVD sounds good, and looks decent, but supplements the film with some enjoyable and informative extras, while avoiding being seen as "educational." If you're looking for a "weepy" film without all the weeping, or enjoy movies about people rising above it all, this is a good one to give a look at.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.