At its heart, the new indie film After Louie faces a lost understanding between two generations of gay men: the ones who survived the AIDS epidemic in the late 80’s and those who came after. While some LGBTQ millennials might have urged older members of the community to “move on” at the same time that the elder generation encouraged the youth to look back, this new film — opening in New York City and on demand this week — marks a successful step forward to find a common ground between the two.
Starring Alan Cumming, After Louie is the story of an aging downtown artist and former AIDS activist, Sam, whose memories of the past keep him restless in the present. Sam treasures his recollections of Louie — his beloved partner he watched die of AIDS. At Louie’s request, Sam documented the steady decline to his death.
Years later, as he is re-visiting the footage for an art project, Sam accidentally encounters a much younger artist, Braeden (Zachary Booth). Their relationship, partially-sexual and partially-artistic, opens Sam’s eyes to how the gay world has changed for the better over the past two decades. However, we learn that Sam is not yet ready (or willing) to embrace it — feeling imprisoned by an old emotional wound that never fully healed. Through the conversations between Sam and Braeden, we see the cultural gap between two generations and their complicated understanding of one another. It’s this chasm that grew somewhere in 90’s between the ones who lived through AIDS and the ones who came after that the film focuses on.
For director Vincent Gagliostro, making this movie has been a form of self-therapy that helped him grapple with his own life since the end of the epidemic. During a conversation at a benefit dinner hosted by the AIDS activist group ACRIA, I distinctly remember Vincent saying, “Sasha, you don’t understand what it means when you go to a funeral every week to bury your friends.” The pain of that statement stayed with me, yet I couldn’t fully grasp the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic. I hadn’t lived through it.
After watching the film with an open mind and heart, I believe I finally got it. Learning Sam’s story helped me better understand some of the older partners I’ve had relationships with since moving to New York. In the beginning, bonded by sexual attraction and the euphoria of first dates, everything went well, but over time, small things started to pop up. I found out that many older men doubt Truvada, and by no means would they agree to have unprotected sex for fear of getting HIV. Besides their sexual boundaries, I’ve also discovered emotional ones: a lack of willingness to fully open their hearts as that sacred space is still occupied by the mourning of their perished loved ones.
In After Louie, there is a compelling image of Alan Cumming’s character writing on a wall with blood-red colored chalk all the names of his friends that AIDS took away. It’s as if he’s trying to permanently tattoo them in his memory. That scene is so profound that it got under my skin and stuck with me long after the credits ended. I couldn’t help but think about all the stories I’d heard from various older friends who lived through this time.
Haunting the film is its title character, Louie. Portrayed in a heart-wrenching performance by award-winning playwright and actor David Drake (The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me), we witness his story decades after he’s gone. We see him documented in fleeting moments from fading videotapes only a few times throughout the film, but those recorded seconds seem so real that it’s as if they belonged to an actual person.
While After Louie will resonate with older men and women who survived the AIDS era, it may appeal even more to the younger generation of LGBTQ people. As I see it, this film is actually for my generation — the millennials born in the wake of the AIDS crisis. It breaks an invisible barrier between two generations and, by the time the credits roll, makes gay history by documenting issues that have long remained unspoken.