In PJ Raval’s engrossing documentary, what arrives “Before You Know It” is old age. While advocacy docs on the subject such as “Gen Silent” or “A Place to Live” examine problems or celebrate triumphs specific to the elderly gay community, “Before” takes a laid-back, observational approach as it follows three very different gay seniors, letting their stories and personalities develop over the course of a year. Though hardly multiplex fodder, the resultant 112-minute film provides sufficient contrasts, surprises, epiphanies and warm moments to keep it rolling engagingly along for target audiences — and anyone else along for the ride.
Soft-spoken Dennis Creamer, a cross-dressing septuagenarian who remained tightly closeted until his wife’s death, is the only one of the film’s protagonists without a fixed geographical center. A loner who is distanced from his family and has few friends, he escorts the filmmakers through his small Florida house, pausing diffidently over photos of his wife, mementos of racquetball championships and the favorites among his negligees and high heels. He joins a gay retirement home in Oregon, where he seems relatively if undemonstratively comfortable in a communal setting.
He still trolls the Internet on the off-chance of a one-nighter, venturing forth in genteel drag to local gay bars, where he elicits polite conversation from younger patrons but dances alone. Raval shows Creamer quietly participating in public pride parades and going on gay cruises, often the lone, melancholy figure in a sea of happy couples. But in direct-to-the-camera musings, he admits that now, though having once considered suicide, he finally has learned to accept and even like himself.
At the other end of the spectrum, flamboyant, extroverted Robert Mainor has transformed his Galveston bar, Robert’s Lafitte (purportedly the oldest gay bar in Texas), into a home-away-from-home that shelters an extended family of drag queens who hang out and perform there nightly. Mainor himself is called upon to perform his patented burlesque turn, complete with dripping rubber phallic nose, for the delectation of bar regulars and the camera. He also hosts raucous communal holiday get-togethers, gladly lending a hand to every gay stray passing through, and is obviously beloved by the gaggle of aging queens who surround him. But as the film progresses, failing health and a looming lawsuit take their toll, and Mainor spends less time at the bar and more at his fuchsia-painted house down the road, while his nephew Scott increasingly assumes his duties at the bar and in the film.
Ty Martin, a dedicated gay-rights activist in Harlem, falls somewhere in between Creamer’s gentle self-containment and Mainor’s flaunted enthusiasm. An outreach director for SAGE, an advocacy group for LGTB seniors, he feels somewhat apprehensive about setting up the first gay-themed booth at the annual Harlem Pride festivities, given recent church-fueled homophobia in the neighborhood. But passersby offer more tolerance and support than expected.
Martin, a survivor of the AIDS epidemic that decimated his circle of friends (their ghosts seen in photos around his apartment), feels blessed to have found a significant other in Stanton Biddle. Working hard for the passage of New York’s marriage-equality law, Martin is thrown for a loop when his oldest friend marries (he serves as best man), and everyone expects that he and Biddle soon will follow. But Biddle hesitates to make the formal commitment, leaving Martin struggling with disappointment.
Throughout, “Before You Know It” resists foundering in pathos or kitsch; its subjects are too complex and resistant, having survived decades of change, to be reduced to victims or examples. And Mike Simpson’s luminous lensing frames them in specific geographical and social contexts that appear positively interactive.