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Before You Know It: SXSW Review

The Bottom Line

The sober doc tacitly raises new arguments for gay marriage.


South By Southwest, Documentary Spotlight


PJ Raval

PJ Raval’s doc follows three gay men looking for support as they enter old age.

AUSTIN — Following three men as they handle the trials of aging, PJ Raval‘s suggests those challenges are even more plentiful if you happen to be gay.  Not oppressive but hardly a feel-good film, the sensitive doc has a wide potential audience, and will leave viewers of all ages in a contemplative mood.

None of the three men is destitute or in unusually poor health, but all, in one way or another, have smaller support systems than straight counterparts — whether because they’ve been ostracized by family members or because the friends of their youth were killed by AIDS.

Ty, in Harlem, is the most youthful-seeming — active in a LBGT social services program and in a long-term relationship, he should have little to fear. But as New York’s approval of gay marriage opens up questions of lifelong commitment, insecurity festers; the fact that his boyfriend isn’t eager to tie the knot seemingly leaves Ty more vulnerable than he was before marriage was an option.

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Robert, a self-acknowledged loudmouth who owns a Galveston gay bar (the oldest in Texas, we’re told), is not appreciated by relatives, but has built a tight community of misfits and barflies. As a potentially devastating legal battle looms, though, he stands to lose the business that ties that surrogate family together.

Dennis, the subject likely to elicit the most concern here, was married for decades, keeping his longing to wear women’s clothing a secret. After his wife’s death, he experiments with a LBGT retirement home in Portland and gay cruises; though the former is very welcoming, the onetime racquetball champ is painfully lonely. Watching him try to make friends in settings where he’s the oldest person by a decade or three is heartbreaking — more so when he has mustered the courage to do it in drag.

Of course, plenty of heterosexuals live their final years in worried isolation; plenty look daily at the prospect of financial ruin. Without saying so, overplays the extent to which these scenarios are caused by being gay. But just looking at men of this age adds new depth to questions about legalizing gay marriage and further normalizing the kind of institutionalized responsibilities straight people take for granted; the film tacitly suggests that even the most progressive legislative steps will probably take a generation or two to address the social issues leaving these men more vulnerable than they need to be.


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