It’s a rare thing when a film comes along that precisely captures the zeitgeist of a generation, and within the insular world of queer cinema, it’s even rarer.
This is not to say there aren’t a lot of great gay films out there. Most of these chart the ongoing concerns of queer life: finding acceptance, finding a place in the world, finding love – essentially, the same things movies about straight people explore, except from a gay point of view.
After Louie is something different. Though its narrative touches on all those universal subjects and more, its primary purpose is to confront an issue that is unique to the LGBTQ experience in the early years of this millennium.
Directed by veteran activist-turned-filmmaker Vincent Gagliostro (whose days on the protest lines as a founding member of ACT UP make him an essential voice of his generation), it is both a powerful personal statement and a thoughtful examination of the crossroads at which queer culture stands at this particular moment in history.
Rife with autobiographical overtones, Gagliostro’s movie centers on Sam (Alan Cumming), a middle-aged New York artist and former AIDS activist still haunted by the anger and sorrow of his younger days.
Frustrated by complacent peers and contemptuous of an unappreciative younger generation, he is attempting to channel his feelings into a documentary about a close friend who died during the epidemic – a project which meets with resistance at every turn.
Seeking solace in a one-night-stand with Braeden (Zachary Booth), a young man he meets at a bar, he finds himself unexpectedly drawn into a relationship which challenges him to re-examine his understanding of modern gay life.
This premise reads like the pitch for a love story, but After Louie does not fall easily into that (or any) category. Though their age gap is more-or-less unsurprising, there are other factors which make this romance anything but typical; for instance, Sam initially assumes that Braeden is a hustler, and the younger man is already in – and stays in – a committed relationship with someone else. Any of these circumstances might, in themselves, become the focal point of an entire movie, but here they are all just details to be taken in stride.
This is not just because Gagliostro has a bigger target in sight, although he does; it’s the natural view from a community in which variations from “expected” cultural models are actually the norm.
Though other audiences might raise their eyebrows over such situations, to most gay viewers they are commonplace and refreshingly familiar. Such a matter-of-fact attitude towards the “otherness” of LGBTQ couplings is a welcome touch which grounds After Louie in a relatable day-to-day reality and allows it to focus on a more important relationship.
That, of course, is Sam’s relationship with himself.
The feelings with which he grapples mirror those of so many gay men and women in his age bracket; the lingering grief and outrage, the resentment at seeing hard-won freedoms taken for granted by those who never fought for them, the guilt over having survived when so many friends and loved ones were lost – these are the psychic scars left by a life interrupted by hellish plague, and they are communal.
Just because the film embraces the experience of one demographic doesn’t mean it isn’t equally comfortable with others; as refreshing as its ease with unorthodox relationships is the fairness with which it treats the other voices within its narrative.
Though Sam has conflicts with multiple “antagonists” throughout, their viewpoints never seem born of malice; most importantly, instead of demonizing its millennial characters, After Louie presents them with compassion and makes it clear they are doing their best to navigate a world they have inherited from their elders.
Part of this is attributable to the screenplay, co-written by Gagliostro and Anthony Johnson (who also gives a sweetly sympathetic performance in the film as Braeden’s other partner, Lukas); but the determination to offer such a balanced view comes from the movie’s creator himself.
Gagliostro’s direction is not flashy, but it’s not documentarian, either. There is a stylish elegance to his film that befits the sensibilities of a man who has spent a lifetime as a visual artist. Likewise, he captures the feel of the New York setting with the instinct of someone so intimate with it as to forego the travelogue approach others might be tempted to offer.
His greatest strength, though, is his ability to transfer what is obviously his own deeply personal passion to the screen through his cast.
Most obviously, this exudes from the movie’s star. Sam is not always a likeable character – he’s arrogant, confrontational, judgmental, petulant – but Cumming beautifully navigates the contrast between his misanthropic demeanor and the deep compassion and humanity that underlies it, and his commitment to the honesty of that conflict is present in his every moment onscreen. Booth is equally honest as young Braeden, conveying a generosity of spirit that provides a perfect counterpoint to his leading man’s gruffness.
Rounding out the cast is an ensemble of diverse players, each bringing the weight of their own truth to the screen; peppered among them are such faces as Wilson Cruz, Justin Vivian Bond, and the legendary Joey Arias, connecting the film with a powerful tradition of queer expression and giving it a stamp of authenticity.
Perhaps it’s that authenticity – along with Gagliostro’s hard-earned pedigree – that allows After Louis to speak so eloquently for an entire community when so many other films have failed. It presents a vivid snapshot of the LGBTQ world in transition between the past and the future, mixing the political and the personal (and the politics of the personal) as it touches on multiple issues which face the community from both directions; love, sex, relationships, HIV, racism, even art and culture – the opposing generational perspectives on all these things and more play out for us as Sam struggles to reconcile them.
Gagliostro’s movie comes at a time when that struggle is extremely crucial. Making sense of history is always relevant when confronting the challenges of the present, but when those challenges are dire it becomes even more important.
As we stand before an uncertain future that rumbles with foreboding, we desperately need to connect with our common ground so that we can stand united in the renewed battle that seems sure to come.
After Louie is a call for us to do just that, and as such it may well be the most important gay movie you’ll see in your lifetime.
“AFTER LOUIE” will be screened as part of Outfest Los Angeles, 8 PM on Saturday July 15 at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel.