Hot off his 2008 best original screenplay Oscar win for the acclaimed Milk, Dustin Lance Black isn’t letting the (gold) dust settle on his keyboard. A new film he’s written, Pedro, will premiere this week at LA's Outfest Fusion festival. But don’t worry that you’ll have to crash a film festival or drive to West Hollywood to see it: Pedro will be shown April 1 on all MTV television networks.
Black has teamed up with acclaimed out producers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (The Fluffer, Quinceañera) to bring this life story of Pedro Zamora to the screen. Zamora, as you will recall, was the first openly gay and openly HIV-positive cast member on MTV’s The Real World. One of thousands of “boat people” who fled Cuba as a child with half of his family in 1980, Zamora stunned his housemates and MTV viewers — and caught the attention of then-President Clinton and the international community — by speaking out about his condition.
Zamora learned he was HIV+ at the age of 17 and died in 1994 at the age of 22. In a mere five years, he became the face of AIDS to teenagers and young adults throughout the US. His good looks, charm and frankness made an immediate impression, and caused many gay young men (including myself, then in my mid-20’s) to think, “If it could happen to him, it could happen to me.”
Pedro, like Milk, employs a flashback device that starts at the beginning of the end of Zamora’s life. Found unconscious in his hotel room prior to a Real World taping, much of Pedro takes place around his hospital bed and, finally, Pedro’s deathbed in his family’s home. The result of this dramatic approach is that the film has a more disconcerting “waiting for the protagonist to die” feel to it than the more dynamic Milk does.
In between these grim scenes, however, viewers do get glimpses of Zamora (well-played as a teenager and adult by Alex Loynaz) in happier times: his childhood in Cuba and his teen years coming out in Florida; times spent with his loving mother and sister; getting married to his partner, Sean Sasser; and, of course, being cast in The Real World.
Those who watched The Real World at the time will likely recall one of Zamora’s other housemates and homophobic nemesis, Puck (reincarnated here by Matt Barr). Fortunately, Puck is dispatched fairly quickly in Pedro. The filmmakers wisely spend more time focusing on the ever-deepening friendship between Zamora and his straight roommate, Judd Winick (Hale Appleman), who wrote the moving memoir Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learnedfollowing Zamora’s untimely death.
In addition to being Black’s second produced screenplay, Pedro marks the feature debut of director Nick Oceano. Black and Oceano shine a more “warts & all” light on Zamora than Black did with Harvey Milk, which essentially canonized the assassinated San Francisco supervisor. I’m not complaining about that, but Pedro does feel a little more honest.
Despite its terminal-illness trappings, Pedro is well worth seeing. The film resurrects a brief but significant life, and reminds us of a time not too long ago when the risks associated with being openly gay and/or openly HIV+ were greater than they are today. We have Zamora, in part, to thank for the progress that’s been made in this regard.
UPDATE: Pedro is now available on DVDfrom Amazon.com.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.