In the late 1980s, and the news is filled with anxious, fraught stories of an epidemic spreading in the U.S. Not much is known about this disease called AIDS, or the virus that causes it. But with no treatment or cure, most people believe it’s a death sentence.
Paul is a young man who has been diagnosed with this virus — H.I.V. — and has since isolated himself from society, and from connection in general. But he’s compelled by a local pastor named Father George to get out of his house and meet with the family of the pastor’s niece, a woman named Nora. But the dinner forces him to confront his fears and his own judgment of himself.
Pensive, melancholy but with great warmth, this short drama — directed by Alex Meader and Connor Hair, and written by Chadwick Hopson — is not just a snapshot of how an epidemic has affected one human life, but a character portrait of a man mired in shame and stasis and finding his way out.
Shot with a rich, burnished warmth and an eye for small, resonant details, the film operates in a quiet, thoughtful mode, feeling very much like the titular character himself: watchful, lonely and lost in his own thoughts and memories. It gracefully toggles between the stillness of his home and nostalgic memories of a past love, and the images are evocative of a former life filled with a poetic tenderness.
One of the most moving aspects of the writing is how it captures how the initial atmosphere surrounded AIDS — the panic, the lack of information, the way these intersect with sometimes self-internalized paranoias and judgments about gay and queer men — are expressed at the level of individual behavior and feeling.
These ideas are brought to life by a restrained, soulful performance by actor Shaun Brown, who evokes the weight of the fear he is dealing with. He’s scared for his mortality; he’s scared of infecting others. Yet there is a hunger within him for something more beyond his isolated, ascetic existence, and Brown limns this internal tension with a fine restraint. It also propels him to meet with people he’s never met with before — and the grace and kindness he’s shown by them help him accept himself, and embrace the life that’s left to him.
It may be about AIDS and HIV, but “Paul” has a strange, weighty relevance in our current moment of the global pandemic, capturing what it is like to have a vital, wide-ranging life of possibilities curtailed by a disease that is little understood and prone to misinformation. But its story’s humanity — its measured rationality and its core embrace of compassion and empathy for one’s fellow humans, no matter what — is also a timely reminder of how we can get through a global health crisis, even now.