As one of the surviving cast members of the watershed gay porn film L.A. TOOL AND DIE., directed by Joe Gage as part of his "Working Man's Trilogy", it would've probably been enough for Michael Kearns to 'rest on his laurels' as his place in the history of gay (or 'queer') cinema was pretty much secure. But he continued his work as an actor and playwright, his openly gay and HIV-poz status informing much of his work.
NINE LIVES is one of these examples, based on his play, "Complications." Where most gay independent films are found wanting in the sense that many of them are about young, good-looking gym bunnies who have lots of sex and drugs and no future, this is a story about much older people in very much the same plight. The twist is that we find out much more about their back stories and how they came to live this dangerous and ultimately hopeless lifestyle...and I don't mean that in the sexual sense, but in the sense that they have given up on themselves and their potential for various reasons.
Kearns himself leads off the film as a character who is something of a sex addict; an HIV-poz man who uses random encounters and booze as narcotics, to dull the pain of memories of lost happiness that has faded from his life, and the stark reality of his limited future.
Connected by him and his story, we get to meet a twenty-something Latino handyman, the upscale and unhappy gay couple he works for - and sleeps with (on an individual basis); a hustler/personal trainer of one half of the couple, who tricks for free with another character; a drug dealer caring for his disabled brother; a crystal meth addict serviced by the drug dealer, and finally a casual sex partner of the meth addict - a well-to-do black businessman with a pregnant wife, who also tricks with Kearns' character, bringing us back full-circle.
It's pretty safe to say that this is no comedy. There are very few if any laughs to be had here at all, and the characters range from the lonely and the forlorn to the downright unpleasant. The material never shies away from the fact that everyone in a relationship has their own agenda, whether that coupling lasts for five minutes or five years, or that there is inherent emotional (and even physical) danger in cutting ourselves off from a better understanding and effort to communicate with others - becoming "our own islands" as it were.
The technique of "camera-confessionals" - the characters speaking directly to the audience - will be annoying to some viewers, especially since it's a device that tends to be overused in independent films. But Kearns and co-writer/director Dean Howell have a great ear for dialogue, and though the stories are harrowing and painful at times, they are not out of character for any of the speakers, depending on who they are.
The photography, murky at times, is still nevertheless suitably bleak to complement the material. The acting here is first-rate, with plenty of nuances and no one dissolving into the clichéd histrionics that most films of this type fall prey to. I was astounded by the actors' sense of commitment, especially during the sex scenes, which are no more pornographic then the simulated rutting that takes place between straight couples in mainstream movies. It's the significance of the sex acts (we assume that none of the characters use protection of any kind) that will be disturbing to most, let alone the fact that such unbridled passion is occurring between men, without so much as a flinch from the unswerving camera.
Kearns is good, as you would expect him to be, and the other actors rise to the occasion as well, bravely baring the souls of their characters as much as they do some well-chiseled bodies. The standouts here are Dennis Christopher of "BREAKING AWAY" fame so long ago, as the drug dealer, Debra Wilson (formerly of MAD TV), proving that she is capable of so much more than just comedy, and Steve Callahan as one half of the bitter gay couple, so desperate for a chance at happiness that he takes measures even more tragic than risky bedroom encounters.
This is probably not going to be one of those "fun date night" movies for anybody, but NINE LIVES is a sugar-free, bracing dash of reality. The most depressing aspect of all is that its underlying message - about what awaits those who gamble with their lives and HIV status - is even more relevant now, than four years ago when this film was released.
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