“Pedro,” which premieres tonight on MTV (and simultaneously on sister station Logo), dramatizes the short, productive life of Pedro Zamora, a third-season cast member of "The Real World" -- the 1994 San Francisco season, known also for the abrasive, abusive and generally uncooperative bike messenger Puck, who was kicked out of the house, in part because of his treatment of Zamora.

This was back when "The Real World" still had the air of a social experiment, making roommates of seven strangers "to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real," before it became, for a while anyway, a kind of financed spring break, a chance to live in a cool house and party and be on television.

Born in Cuba and raised mostly in Miami, Zamora -- "the first-ever openly gay, HIV-positive main character on TV," the network says -- was an inspirational figure just for showing up. But he was also an AIDS educator who saw his "Real World" tenure as a kind of platform -- in a time when Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet and gay characters, let alone HIV-positive gay characters, had yet to become unremarkable participants in the narratives of mainstream television. Yet "The Real World" made the ring exchange between Zamora and boyfriend Sean Sasser the centerpiece of one of its episodes and made the enlightenment of his cast mates one of the series' main themes as well. It was bold television in its time, and the gesture still resonates.

Although it is the vessel of such worthy burdens, the film itself -- even with a screenplay by Oscar-winning "Milk" scribe Dustin Lance Black -- is just all right, typical of its generally disappointing kind, a mix of re-creation and speculation that on the whole is far less compelling than life. The drama proceeds in expository snippets and confrontational scenes, some reenacted from "Real World," and hits all the bullet points. But there is little in it as powerful as the documentary footage clipped on to the end.

Much of what does work involves Justina Machado as Pedro's sister, Mily; she creates a whole person where most of the actors suggest characters. Whether that person is anything like Mily is, dramatically speaking, beside the point; when Machado is on screen the film (directed by Nick Oceano) becomes immediately more real. As Pedro, Alex Loynaz is less convincing -- quite winning at times but at others too clearly acting a part.

Like "The Real World," "Pedro" comes from Bunim-Murray Productions, and some of the film's more interesting moments involve not Zamora but the mechanics of reality TV -- that while Pedro was known to everyone but his family as Peter, for example, the producers asked that he go by Pedro. It also gives a picture of the military maneuvering that goes into filming such a series. (And in a cyclical bit of self-referencing, or cross-promotion, the cast of the current "The Real World: Brooklyn" was recently shown watching a screening of "Pedro.")

Despite its faults, many will doubtless be moved, because films like this have to meet us only halfway: They get by on what we bring to the table -- our memories of the events they portray or the time they recall, and of people we've known in similar circumstances. But with all of "The Real World: San Francisco" available on the MTV website, you are better off watching the thing itself, which is sweeter and more affecting and more complex than this refracted abstract.

robert.lloyd@latimes.com