“Life Support,” a TV movie about HIV in the black community premiering Saturday night on HBO, is an admirable work, and when I say “admirable” I don’t mean that it tells an “important story.” Admirable subjects and important stories are being tackled and told all the time in TV movies -- and very special episodes of television series -- usually with less than impressive results. What is remarkable about “Life Support” is how it avoids every pitfall of the standard issue-based TV film and, indeed, of most TV films, period.
Though the film is “inspired by a true story” -- Queen Latifah plays a role based on the sister of director and co-writer Nelson George, an HIV-positive former drug addict and current AIDS activist -- it’s not, in the usual biopictorial sense, a true story. It contrives to dispense a number of relevant facts and figures regarding African Americans and AIDS and is punctuated by support-group scenes that feature nonactors from actual support groups, but one could as easily say that it’s about mothers and daughters, or the work that marriage takes, or loyalty to friends even when they mess up, or the righteousness and self-righteousness of a reformed drug addict.
Its real subject is a group of particular people and how they get along, and how they don’t get along, and what happens to them, and to them only, in the space of a couple of stressful days. It doesn’t try to telescope a whole life into an hour and a half or tell you everything you need to know about a disease. The characters don’t tell you who they are but show you, in how they speak and stand and regard one another.
George, best known as a pop music journalist and social critic, has been flirting with movies and TV for years (he first crossed the line as a backer of Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It”); this is the second feature he has directed (after a 2001 BET film, “One Special Moment”), but he has a few shorts to his credit as well; co-wrote “CB4" with Chris Rock; and was an executive producer of HBO’s “Everyday People,” whose director-writer, Jim McKay, co-wrote “Life Support” with George and Hannah Weyer (director of the fine border-life documentary “La Boda”).
Many of the virtues of “Life Support” are exactly those of McKay’s own excellent, recently premiered and still airing HBO film “Angel Rodriguez” (co-written by McKay and Weyer), and I don’t think it’s uncharitable to hazard that the more experienced filmmaker has provided a model for the less.
In any case, the films, which share an inner-city setting and an eye for what’s meaningful in ordinary things, are more alike than they are like the rest of what’s on TV. Both resist the urge to sensationalize, sentimentalize or sermonize, a resolution that informs the very way they look and sound. They use music only sparingly and favor a “documentary feel” that has nothing to do with the “NYPD Blue"-derived whip-pan, shaky-cam aesthetic that has deranged modern cinematography and everything to do with the know-where-to-look, know-how-to-listen values of actual documentaries. The film takes its time and keeps quiet so that small gestures read large. George finds moving drama in as simple a thing as a foot rub; his climax is a conversation on a park bench.
The acting is superb throughout. The familiar faces, including Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”), Anna Deveare Smith (“The West Wing”) and Tracee Ellis Ross (“Girlfriends”), disappear completely into their parts; but astonishingly good work is done as well by young newcomers Rachel Nicks as Latifah’s older, semiestranged daughter and Evan Ross (son of Diana) as Nicks’ downward spiraling childhood friend.
As for the star, Queen Latifah, only in her mid-30s, has long since been confirmed as the pop-cultural royalty her name implies. Here, she is both formidable and flawed, large and small, a determined woman who is also undeniably tired. If there were any question that she’s a fine, fine actress as well, this should settle it in the affirmative.
When: 8 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17)