Many people will know James Roday from playing the cocksure, mischievous character is TV’s Psych. Here he takes on a slightly different character, playing Dan, a man who’s lived with HIV for over two decades, but still feels the stigma and never tells anyone about his illness. The only ones who are aware are Paula (Robin Weigert), the sister of Dan’s former lover; and his editor, the gruff Bob (Danny Glover), who’s having marriage troubles.
Dan is having more than a few difficulties himself. He’s a poet at a time when no one cares about poetry, and when he deposits a $100 birthday cheque in his bank account, he accidentally goes over the incredibly strict bar for being on a low income that his healthcare plan enforces. That means that rather than getting most of his HIV medication paid for under his insurance, he suddenly needs to come up with $3,000 a month. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t have $3,000.
Trapped by his finances, his relationship with his illness and how he views his possibilities for love, Dan suddenly feels he may be able to change things when he meets a handsome, blond, British man (Tom Riley). However, those changes may not come in the way he expected.
Roday is essentially playing a calmed down version of his Psych character, retaining a few of the quirks, but here he’s world-wearier and resigned to a limited life. He plays an interesting character, as while there has been a bit of a resurgence of films and documentaries about HIV and AIDS in the past few years, most of them have focussed around the crisis in the 80s and early 90s. Far fewer have concentrated on characters who survived or who contracted HIV later, and are now living with the condition. If these HIV+ characters are included, it’s usually to say it’s not no big deal, as you just take a few pills and nobody cares.
For Dan it’s different though. He still feels the stigma, partly due to a judgemental society, and partly because he remembers how people with HIV were treated when he was first diagnosed – essentially as lepers. It’s an internal hurdle he’s never overcome, hiding his disease away and as a result, shunning aspects of life that could bring him happiness.
Although some may bristle at the idea of a film where living with HIV isn’t presented in a solely positive way – that it can be part of your life without affecting it in a terrible way – there is plenty of truth to the stigma Pushing Dead deals with. The film finds some interesting parallels between homophobia and HIV stigma, as well as in a very witty scene where Bob and Dan have a competition over how many pills they have to take. Of course, nobody cares if an aging man has to take an endless parade of medication, buy there’s more of social disapprobation around HIV meds.
For a British viewer there’s also plenty of disbelief over the American medical system, where it’s almost unbelievable that the richest country on Earth could possibly leave people in the situation Dan finds himself in.
There’s also something rather sweet about the romance between Dan and his British beau, Mike, whether it works out the way you might hope or not. Less successful is Pushing Dead’s indie film inclinations towards quirkiness for the sake of quirkiness, whether it’s a mysterious little girl who keeps popping up to spout famous sayings, or moments when we jump into Dan’s fantasies or dreams. While some are quite funny or apt, overall they make the movie feel like it’s trying too hard, and they butt up awkwardly against the rather downbeat but wry tone of much of the narrative. The comedy it finds in story itself does a far better job of leavening some of its more morose tendencies than the slightly forced quirky moments.
Luckily, while these quirky touches will make a few people roll their eyes, they don’t overwhelm the central core of the story. That’s helped by good performances from both Roday and Danny Glover, and most particularly Robin Weigert, who makes a character who could have just been a bit of a dull cipher for Dan into something far more interesting.
It is a bit of a shame Pushing Dead doesn’t reach a bit further, as if it had delved deeper into the characters, their problems and the issues they’re facing, it could have been great. In fact, there are a few moments, particularly early on, where it feels a little like a topic – living with HIV – in search of a film. That quickly resolves, but there is still a nagging sense that while it’s entertaining, there’s more to what it’s talking about than it manages to fully explore.
Overall Verdict: A good cast and some interesting ideas help Pushing Dead to be an entertaining look at HIV stigma, even if the film does sometimes over-quirk itself.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac