Toronto
2 min

Night light

Humour brightens the darkness

OUR SONS STILL DIE. In The Event, Olympia Dukakis (right) gives one of the best performances of her career as the mother of a son with AIDS (Don McKellar, left), directed by Thom Fitzgerald. Credit: Xtra files

Death by assisted suicide is not your typical topic of casual conversation. But director Thom Fitzgerald (The Hanging Garden, Beefcake) hopes that will change with the release of his new film, The Event. A phenomenon that came to the fore in the mid-1980s as the AIDS epidemic reached its peak, assisted suicide (in which a person who wishes to take their life is aided by another person) remains a major issue in the gay community, one that hasn’t been examined in a North American feature since the star-studded It’s My Party was released in 1996.



At the centre of The Event is Matt (Toronto actor Don McKellar), who, as the film opens, is being placed into a body bag and removed from his Chelsea apartment. In the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film, we learn Matt has AIDS and the drug cocktails he’s been taking have stopped working. Feeling his health and independence slipping away, he decides to take the future into his own hands and end his life. Supported by family and friends, including his mother (Olympia Dukakis) and sister (Sarah Polley), Matt hosts “the event,” a boisterous farewell bash, complete with drag queens and party favours, that allows everyone to celebrate his life and say their good-byes.



The problem is, several other gay men have died under similar circumstances, which catches the attention of the New York District Attorney’s office, specifically attorney Nicole “Nick” Devivo (a miscast and grumpy Parker Posey), who’s assigned to investigate what part Matt’s loved ones played in his demise. And whether they should be held accountable.



Despite the dark subject, one of the great strengths of the film is Fitzgerald’s skill in injecting the material with lighter moments – the use of humour to cope with tragedy. This is beautifully captured during a scene in which Matt and his friends take bong hits and discuss The Village People before dividing up his possessions and claiming them with name-tags. The scene works in large part due to the skill of the actors Fitzgerald was able to attract to the project.



The Event is blessed with a dream cast that, in addition to McKellar, Polley and Posey, includes Brent Carver and Frasier’s Jane Leeves. But it’s Olympia Dukakis, as Matt’s devastated but fiercely supportive mother Lila, who steals the show, drilling to the emotional core of her every scene with laser-like precision. Whether she’s bemusedly sharing pot cookies with Matt, quietly simmering while explaining her son’s wishes to her ignorant brother, or subtly underplaying her anguish in a pivotal scene at Matt’s bedside, Dukakis gives one of the best performances of her stellar career.



Not that The Event doesn’t have problems. The film’s structure, cutting between Posey’s DA questioning the characters and the flashbacks that ensue, while serving to remind us that assisted suicide is illegal, makes for a dramatically flat and convoluted narrative that feels like it should have ended at least two scenes before it actually does. And the gray, murky look of the cinematography does nothing to advance the argument for digital video as a viable alternative to film.



If the subject matter of The Event sometimes feels like old news to gay viewers, that’s partly what Fitzgerald wants. He’s said that he stuck with AIDS as the disease Matt is suffering from to, “prod people and remind them that this epidemic is ongoing.”



The Event tackles challenging issues and should provoke discussion, debate and, hopefully, change. When was the last time a night at the movies offered sustenance for both the heart and the mind?



* The Event opens Fri, Oct 3 at the Varsity (55 Bloor St W; 416-961-6303) and the Bayview (2901 Bayview Ave; 416-646-0444).