Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Both lead actors are well chosen. Bressan Jr directs with a quiet assurance that gives them lots of room to work but ensures that the film never tips over into melodrama."

"What would you do if you could be completely well for just 24 hours?" David (David Schachter) asks Robert (Geoff Edholm). After giving his answer, Robert returns the question, and David is flummoxed. He is well. And he's never thought about it.

One of the first films to deal directly with the AIDS crisis, Arthur J Bressan Jr's gentle drama explores the relationship between a hospitalised man dying as a result of the disease and the buddy assigned to him by the local gay centre. It's David's job to help Robert through the last few weeks or months of his life. The situation is full of narrative potential. The two men don't know each other - David isn't even sure that he likes Robert to begin with, and it seems unlikely that their paths would have crossed in any other way. Robert is afraid of dying and emotionally complicated in other ways, still determined to leave the world better than he found it. Both men have, in their different ways, been shaped by homophobia. In a short space of time, under tremendous pressure, they try to understand one another and make sense of what's happening.

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Both lead actors are well chosen. Bressan Jr directs with a quiet assurance that gives them lots of room to work but ensures that the film never tips over into melodrama. There are some intense emotional moments but they make sense in context. Much of the interaction takes the form of argument, and this in turn makes room for an examination of the politics and purpose of gay activism at a critical point in its history, with David gradually developing a political conscience as he takes in the wider context of what is happening to his new friend. Although most of the film is played as a two hander, there's good supporting work from David Rose as David's boyfriend Steve, who helps him through what he's doing even though he suspects that he's falling in love.

Before this, there had been very few films focused on gay people that didn't focus on sexual or romantic relationships. Although this film has its erotic moments and the bond that develops between the buddies has romantic aspects, it's primarily about friendship. David's sympathies for Robert - beyond the obvious ones connected with his illness - first arise when he hears about how badly his parents and a series of boyfriends have treated him in the past. He gradually comes to accept that Robert doesn't view all those relationships as failures. Video footage of Robert with the man he still loves is scored with the heavy-handed romantic music popular in films of the period and some of what we see makes visual reference to films like Love Story, putting this in the context not of gay cinema but of mainstream tragic romance. This is a bold move on Bressan Jr's part. As it turned out, society wasn't ready, and the film only played on the independent circuit, but when Philadelphia wowed mainstream audiences eight years later, it was riding on Buddies' coat-tails.

Small scale though its initial success may have been, this was an influential film which demonstrated that there were more stories to tell about gay men than those previously seen, and it also helped to challenge myths about AIDS. The first time we see David he's dressed up in so many layers of latex and scrubs that he looks like a comedy character. It doesn't take long for him to remove his face mask and after that it's just a matter of time until he's wearing his ordinary clothes and hugging his new friend. Seeing this today, one has to remind oneself of the sheer panic around the illness at the time. In one scene Robert explains that his former flatmate is afraid to visit him - afraid even to enter the room. Bressan Jr's work has now acquired the additional status of history lesson. We are reminded of the rhetoric from right wingers at the time - pronouncements that AIDS was God's revenge or that all infected people should be sent away to an island. They're views that can still be encountered today, but they no longer have as much force.

A salute to the brave individuals who stood up to prejudice and government interaction, made before anyone could really guess what the result of their actions would be, Buddies is also a powerful human story and a highly effective piece of cinema.

Reviewed on: 06 Dec 2019
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First film to deal with the AIDS crisis tells the story of a man who becomes a voluntary 'buddy' for an AIDS patient and finds their relationship changing
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Flare 2018
SQIFF 2018

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