Thursday, December 01, 2011

ADIFF ’11: David is Dying

Self-destructing might be a more accurate term than dying for what David Brown is doing. AIDS need not be an instant death sentence anymore, but he is not exactly in a healing frame of mind. Frankly, he is rather toxic, emotionally and spiritually, in Stephen Lloyd Jackson’s David is Dying (trailer here), the centerpiece selection of the 2011 African Diaspora International Film Festival this Saturday.

Brown ought to be a laudable example of social mobility within the UK’s Caribbean immigrant community. The first-generation hedge-fund manager has certainly made good. He loved his late mother dearly, but he has profound issues with women and intimacy stemming from her occasional work as a high-class “escort.” As a result, Carla Mensah is walking into a trap when they become involved.

Manipulative under the best of circumstances, Brown’s jealous flare-ups lead to periodic estrangements—time he fills with hedonistic benders. This in turn leads to long-term trouble, as he explains to his analyst in a series of narrative flashbacks.

Dying is quite frank in the manner it addresses sexual themes, but it is more tell than show. In fact, the therapy session device works quite well as a means of facilitating the Brown’s recollections as both a child and an emotional game-player. While some of Jackson’s stylistic excesses border on the baffling, one has to respect his aesthetic ambition. Whereas, when Dying works, it is rather dashed uncomfortable.

Evidently quite well known on the UK DJ circuit, Lonyo Engele’s work as Brown really holds the film together. Scarily intense, but undeniably charismatic, it is easy to see how he could keep an intelligent professional such as Mensah ensnared for long. Likewise, Isaura Barbé-Brown depicts Mensah’s character arc with sensitivity and unexpected grit. Unfortunately, Brigitte Millar is far too twitchy and awkward to be credible as Brown’s therapist, Dr. Holland. (It is also disappointing Hsai-Shan Shen does not have more screen time as Mensah’s gallery assistant Annie, because this temperamentally dark film could use something to brighten it up at times.)

As a film, Dying is really not really class conscious or issue-oriented. Indeed, its characters are probably far better off than the proverbial ninety-nine percent of the audience who will see them. Yet, Jackson still elicits sympathy for Brown and Mensah, despite their often unappealing life choices. An oddity, but not without its merits, Dying screens as the 2011 ADIFF centerpiece this Saturday (12/3), with a special reception immediately following. There will also be a regular festival screening this Sunday (12/4), with the annual fest continuing through December 13th.