For gay men who marched on the frontlines in the battle for civil rights, acceptance and survival through the AIDS crisis, the seeming indifference of younger generations to those sacrifices and struggles can be corrosive. The desire to raise awareness, to keep painful memories alive, and to reinforce the origins of freedom for people born into an era in which HIV is a manageable illness and gay marriage a legal right, is a legitimate impulse and a vital story worth telling. In his first feature, director Vincent Gagliostro dives with obvious personal investment into his own past to address head-on that generational divide.
An art director with a successful background in fashion and beauty, Gagliostro in 1987 become a founding member of ACT UP, creating many of the AIDS activist group's iconic protest graphics. There clearly are autobiographical elements in Sam, the central character played by Alan Cumming in After Louie, a New York artist pushing 60, attempting to break away from painting with a film project about a close friend he lost to AIDS. And Gagliostro's roots in the New York queer cultural scene are evident in the casting of several figures from that world, among them Justin Vivian Bond, Joey Arias, David Drake and Everett Quinton.
But while it's well-intentioned to a fault, and driven by deep convictions, the film also is diffuse, lethargically paced and short on thematic trenchancy, building powerful individual moments but seldom sustaining a compelling narrative thread. Written by Gagliostro with Anthony Johnson, a young New York-based actor-performance artist who brings the contemporary perspective and is effective onscreen in an important secondary role, After Louie too often spells out its points instead of convincingly dramatizing them.
Still, upcoming screenings at Outfest in Los Angeles and Frameline in San Francisco should help generate further exposure at festivals and on streaming platforms, and many LGBT audiences will appreciate the film's admirable attempt to define what "gay community" now means — both to veterans of the trenches and to seemingly apolitical millennials. Interestingly, After Louie is the second drama this year in which a filmmaker draws on his involvement with ACT UP for inspiration, following French writer-director Robin Campillo's 120 Beats Per Minute, set in 1990s Paris, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes.
In a fearlessly abrasive performance that doesn't entirely escape cliché, Cumming broods and chain-smokes as tortured artist Sam, occasionally breaking the tension by having joyless sex with hustlers. Bouncing between survivor's guilt and moody volatility, his suspended state is evident in a barely furnished apartment where he's lived for going on 20 years, but it still looks as if he just moved in.
Sam has been struggling for months with a film about his late friend William (Drake), a writer whose book about his former lover gives the movie its title. But Sam's friends, some of them with their own memories of William, have mixed feelings about the project, and his art dealer (Bond) tells him, "No one wants to see this, they want to see your paintings."
Just as William, nearing death in the late '90s, expressed rage that nobody was angry anymore, Sam also blames his friends for their complacency. Jeffrey (Patrick Breen) and Mateo (Wilson Cruz) become a particular target when it slips out that they've married, causing Sam to berate them for adopting the "hetero-normativity" he sees as imposing straight constructs on queer culture. Their mutual friends Maggie (Sarita Choudhury) and her mellow husband Mark (Lucas Caleb Rooney) mostly just try to keep the peace.
The younger-generation sounding board for all this is Braeden (Zachary Booth), a coolly uncomplicated bar pickup whose interest in him Sam automatically assumes is transactional. He slips a wad of cash into Braeden's sneaker the morning after they first have sex, and while he tries to object, Sam ushers him out the door. Only during repeat encounters, each time followed by payment, does it emerge that "accidental prostitute" Braeden is in an open but loving relationship with HIV-positive Lukas (Johnston).
Rounding out the picture, more schematically than essentially, is an older generation that has witnessed even greater sea changes in LGBT attitudes, represented by Sam's former art-school teacher, Julian (Quinton), who has his own philosophy on the slow drift into invisibility.
The most involving scenes are those between Sam and Braeden, in part because Booth (who co-starred in Ira Sachs' Keep the Lights On) brings such depth to a role that straddles the divide between youthful detachment and genuine sensitivity. Their flirty banter gives the film a welcome lightness, even if Sam is prone to killing the moment by recalling the years when he was going to funerals three times a week.
The problem with the somewhat tiresome main character — and by extension, the movie — is that once Sam spews out all his lofty judgment, accusing Braeden's generation of fighting for nothing, there are few places left for the script to go. Braeden stands up to him by pointing out Sam's refusal to acknowledge that his struggles have in fact yielded progress, and actually expressing his gratitude. That shuts Sam down for a minute, but Gagliostro's messy handling of the closing scenes, in which Sam seems for the first time to contemplate moving on with his life, gives the movie a soft, inconclusive ending, with little sense of a satisfying arc.
This section is further compromised by fussy visual flourishes that add nothing, and by silly touches like having Braeden and Lukas reaffirm their mutual commitment in a way that borders on laughable — not registering as behavior in any way grounded in the characters or the moment. Elsewhere, too, the visual ideas take precedence over the grasp of plot, character or thematics, for instance, an earlier scene in which Sam and Braeden paint body art on one another; or Sam, in a furious druggy trance, spends all night scrawling the names of dead friends, lovers and acquaintances on a wall of his apartment in red crayon.
There's no doubt that Gagliostro's intentions are sincere in addressing an intergenerational schism that many gay men feel. But despite its surfeit of talk on that subject, After Louie seems dramatically undernourished; the director's ambitions are let down by his unrefined storytelling skills.