‘Pushing Dead’: Outfest Review

Pushing Dead Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Outfest

Pushing Dead Still - Publicity - H 2016

Well-intentioned, but wide of the mark.

This low-key comedy about the challenges faced by HIV survivors was an audience award-winner at the Frameline LGBTQ film festival.

Pushing Dead attempts the considerable challenge of transforming HIV infection into comedic material, an effort that could conceivably appeal to a fairly broad audience if deftly handled. That potential goes mostly unrealized in Tom E. Brown’s debut feature, however, although the film could continue to receive a warm welcome as it traverses the festival circuit.

Brown’s creative missteps aren’t so obvious at first, as he focuses on Dan (James Roday), a middle-aged gay man who has survived 22 years HIV-positive by perfecting his coping mechanisms, which include multiple daily doses of meds, supportive chats with chronically single roommate Paula (Robin Weigert) and an undemanding job that doesn’t provoke much stress. These arrangements should theoretically leave him plenty of time to work on his writing, but he’s been blocked for months, sitting down to work at his electric typewriter largely out of a sense of duty rather than any particular inspiration. Partly, he’s still mourning the passing of his longtime lover, but in reality he doesn’t seem to have much to write about anyway.

His job assisting old-school San Francisco bar owner Bob (Danny Glover) consists mostly of providing friendly advice and managing the poorly attended weekly “poetry-slam” nights, a form of occupation that comfortably limits him to a low-income bracket so that he can obtain state-subsidized medical care. Dan’s carefully balanced lifestyle gets upended when he inadvertently exceeds his monthly revenue cap by depositing a $100 birthday check from his mom, suddenly pushing him into a higher earnings category and boosting his prescription costs to $3,000 a month. With only a week of meds remaining, Dan faces scarce resources and limited alternatives.

Typically the loss of medical services would be cause for significant alarm for an HIV-positive patient, but Brown treats the crisis as more of a minor inconvenience when Dan’s caseworker tells him he’ll have to wait three weeks to re-qualify for coverage. Instead of taking on the supposedly uncaring health care system directly or finding an alternative method to demonstrated his income status, Dan bides his time while trying to persuade Bob to make up with his wife Dot (Khandi Alexander) after she kicks him out of the house for being an unrelenting pain in the ass, counseling Paula on modifying her unsuccessful dating strategies and getting to know Mike (Tom Riley), an attractive new acquaintance.

These are just some of the lapses demonstrated by Brown’s under-powered script, which consistently misses opportunities to profitably seize on dramatic developments while frequently indulging in pointlessly quirky narrative digressions.

The cast follows along as best they can, but it’s a bit of a muddle. Roday plays Dan as sympathetic and occasionally charming, but can’t quite sharpen his edge. As his irascible boss, Glover delivers another entertaining grouchy-old-man performance, a character role that he’s gradually perfecting to the point that even a raised eyebrow or a curled lip quickly communicates disapproval. Alexander brightens every scene she appears in, but unfortunately isn’t given enough of them to favorably tip the balance.

Production companies: Bugsby Pictures, Chrismatic Film
Cast: James Roday, Danny Glover, Robin Weigert, Khandi Alexander, Tom Riley
Director-writer: Tom E. Brown
Producers: Chris Martin, Richard LaGravenese, Eyde Belasco, Jim Bloom
Executive producer: Ian Reinhard
Director of photography: Frazer Bradshaw
Production designer: Nina Ball
Costume designer: Aggie Rodgers
Editor: Robert Schafer
Music: Mark Degli Antoni
Casting director: Eyde Belasco
Venue: Outfest (US Narrative Features)

Not rated, 110 minutes