In olden days, a teen-oriented message movie like “Girl, Positive” would have aired as an “Afterschool Special,” or — if infused with juicy “true story” trappings — a “movie of the week.” Perhaps that’s why despite a few modernizing touches — blogging, rap music, instant messaging — Lifetime’s movie-length PSA feels like an anachronism, what with its overt HIV-awareness campaign and persevering female leads. Of course, if the movie helps a couple of kids, as they say, it’s all worthwhile, though given the cable net’s demographic skew, it’ll mostly scare the hell out of their mothers and grandmothers.
Continuing to grow up before our very eyes, “Desperate Housewives'” Andrea Bowen plays Rachel, a pretty high school student with a near-absentee mom, who discovers to her dismay that football star Jason (Erik Von Detton) — with whom she had a tryst before he died in a car crash — was HIV-positive. Reluctant to get tested, she’s dragged through the process by a substitute teacher, Sarah (Jennie Garth), who has the virus herself, birthing a subplot about her reluctance to date an attentive colleague (Nathan Anderson).
Rachel is self-absorbed, petulant and whiny — in other words, pretty much your average teenage girl. As the possibility of being infected dawns on her, she realizes how flimsy her support system is, and once revealed, the mere threat of having HIV spreads through the school in a scene reminiscent of the “Telephone Hour” number in “Bye Bye, Birdie.”
As constructed by writer Nancey Silvers and director Peter Werner, the parallel structure involving Sarah and Rachel (essentially the same character a few years apart) illustrates the before-and-after consequences of HIV — from the fear of diagnosis through the ability to survive longer thanks to the current prescription cocktails, though never, perhaps, to feel safe or “normal.”
Unflinching in some respects, “Girl, Positive” ridicules teaching sexual abstinence in the face of raging teenage hormones and kids’ youthful veneer of invulnerability. Yet the movie ultimately pounds home its warnings in bursts of awkward dialogue and alarming statistics, flashing onscreen that “50 young Americans are infected with HIV every day.”
Both Bowen and Garth spend pretty much the entire narrative looking understandably pained, while “Law & Order’s” S. Epatha Merkerson dutifully delivers the public-service goods in her role as a clinic supervisor.
Lifetime has rightfully won plaudits for shining attention on women’s health issues, so it’s hard to fault the underlying motivations. Viewed strictly on its dramatic merits, however, this exercise in TV advocacy almost reflexively has you wondering when that little “The More You Know” theme is going to play, making it hard to feel entirely positive about this “Girl.”