The message is all too clear in “Life Support,” writer-director Nelson George’s feature debut based on his HIV-positive sister, Andrea Williams. Subtext and subtlety have little place in this melodrama of a Brooklyn woman working in an HIV awareness support group and wrestling with her own family issues. As a kind but flawed mother and wife, Queen Latifah brings a quiet command and humanity. Nonetheless, though certainly useful as an educational vehicle, this TV-scaled piece is not as well suited for Sundance’s closing night selection as it is for its airing on HBO (set for March 10).
Although co-written by George, Jim McKay and McKay’s “Angel Rodriguez” writing partner Hannah Weyer, the film’s routine story contains little of the bracing urban naturalism that flows through McKay’s other pics. While McKay has found a supportive creative home at HBO, he continues to make features that are real cinema. “Life Support,” however, is strictly a television drama.
Ana (Latifah) is first seen in a support circle of women at the “Life Support” AIDS awareness facility in Brooklyn. Her home life with HIV-positive hubby Slick (Wendell Pierce) and 9-year-old daughter Kim (Rayelle Parker) appears happy. Slick’s character is gradually filled out as a loyal blue-collar husband who infected Ana when they were both junkies.
But Ana has another, older daughter, Kelly (Rachel Nicks), who lives with her grandmother Lucille (Anna Deavere Smith) and holds a bitter grudge against Ana for being a poor mom when she needed her most as a child. Pic’s most admirable touch is introducing Lucille and Kelly as if they had no connection to Ana at all — thus reinforcing the separation between the mothers and daughters.
Amare (Evan Ross), a drug-addled, HIV-positive friend of Kelly’s, shows up wanting to crash in her bedroom for a few days, despite the fact that Lucille once kicked him out of the house for stealing a pearl necklace.
Ana and Amare are two not too subtle examples of ways to cope with HIV: Ana is the responsible one. She trudges on each day despite a bad foot condition and does good despite being stubborn and wanting her own way. Amare is the irresponsible one. He is young, careless and ignores meds for a quick fix.
Far too much of the rest of “Life Support” is consumed with Amare’s disappearance and Ana’s dogged efforts to track him down, impelled to rescue him because it is the right thing to do, and in the hope of gaining the respect of daughter Kelly.
Unlike McKay’s own rougher films — which are as close as American indie cinema gets to the work of Ken Loach — almost no point in George’s film goes against the predictable grain.
Still, Latifah provides a good anchor for the film’s humanist impulses, and she receives pro support from Smith, Pierce, Nicks, with Ross handling the more extreme realities of HIV. The always-reliable Gloria Reuben has too little screen time, and Tony Rock capably gives pic’s some street cred as an old drug pal of Ana’s.
Production package is standard for a mid-level HBO project, but use of Brooklyn as a real-life urban setting doesn’t remotely match the all-encompassing realism of the Baltimore streets seen weekly on the masterpiece HBO series “The Wire.”