Shawn Decker has AIDS.
His fiancée, Gwenn Barringer, does not.
This is their story. Sort of.
“A Boy, A Girl, A Virus” is actually the name of the lecture that Gwenn and Shawn give to various college campuses around the country. It’s a great title, so it’s sort of unfortunate that it doesn’t really fit the bill on this documentary.
In fact, it’s rather difficult to sort out just what the focus of this documentary is. It bills itself as a story about the ins and outs of their relationship, but the film spends perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes of its total running time talking about how they get along, and devotes the rest of the running time exclusively to Shawn’s life as an AIDS carrier.
But let’s come back to this in a second.
When it comes time to judge a film, every critic must ask themselves the following two questions:
1. What is this film supposed to do? (Make you laugh, make you cry, make you feel empathy, etc.)
2. Does this film accomplish that task?
The problem I’m having writing about this film is that after sixty minutes I still was uncertain what I was supposed to take away from the film. It seems less like an explanation or discussion of its subject and more a chance to string together small, interesting facts about its protagonists.
The problem is that the facts, in their current state, don’t really add up to anything.
Consider Shawn for a moment. Here’s a guy who was born to have a film made about his life. Born a hemophiliac, he contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion when he was seven. When he was eleven, his mother told him that he had AIDS. (“She must have lost the coin toss,” he deadpans.) After his diagnosis, he was kicked out of school, and only reinstated after his mother hired a lawyer to fight his expulsion.
Told he had maybe a year to live, he figured there was no point in planning on going to college, assuming that death was always just around the corner and that there was no point planning for tomorrow. In fact, he missed most of middle and high school, because he didn’t feel compelled to go.
Once he graduated… things started to turn around. He decided to use the knowledge that he had to teach people about AIDS. He became a speaker on college campuses, where he met Gwenn. They’ve been together for four years now, and they spend their time going cross-county teaching people about AIDS awareness, and safer sex.
It’s a great story, right? And Shawn is a terrific storyteller. In the short segments that are shown of him speaking on college campuses he is funny, and engaging, and always completely honest with his audience.
In one astonishing example, he states that despite the fact that he is infected and Gwenn is not, they have sexual intercourse. I recognize that it sounds strange to use such a clinical term, but I want to be clear on this – they have actual sex, utilizing a condom, which they go on to claim is perfectly safe. They’ve been doing this for four years and Gwenn has never tested positive for HIV.
It was here that a major problem of the film is brought to light – namely, a lack of follow through. Their claim regarding their “safer sex” is not one that I have ever heard before. A better documentary would have followed this up with some statistics, or perhaps some interview footage with a doctor’s input.
This isn’t an isolated case of missed opportunities. At one point in the film, Shawn goes into a rather lengthy monologue about how a high school history teacher once spent fifteen minutes of class time spouting off about how horrible AIDS is. When Shawn returns to his high school, he bumps into that same high school teacher again – and sparks completely fail to fly.
Not that they should, perhaps, but one would think that the cameraman, now knowing the teacher’s name and what he looks like, might have tracked him down and gotten his side of the story.
For that matter, why not track down the people who kicked him out of school? Or the lawyer who defended him? The company that released HIV-infused blood even though they knew it was tainted?
Also, Shawn’s brother (and his mullet) is mentioned, but not interviewed. And at no point in the film do Gwenn’s parents show up to discuss how they feel about their daughter dating someone who is HIV positive. If they, or anyone else, declined to be interviewed, the filmmakers never mentioned it.
Finally, there’s a matter of the editing, both of short sequences and of the film itself. The primary problem is the editor’s choice to go very MTV on several portions of the film. Instead of just letting people talk, or walk, or do, there are constant unneeded jump cuts that are much more headache-inducing than hip.
The other problem is the one I started to address at the beginning of this review – the film lacks a storyline. There are great stories here, to be sure, but they rarely form a cohesive whole.
Worse, there are sections of the film that seem to be staged, and rather awkwardly at that – the “perfect” kiss, the random moment when Shawn marches towards the camera carrying his medicine box while ablaze in special effects.
I suspect the problem of the film is the director’s inability to step away from his preconceived premise and move towards the premise that naturally asserts itself. There is a great deal of information about Shawn in this film, almost all of it fascinating. Perhaps by making the film more linear – going from his childhood to his adulthood, rather than skipping around providing random tidbits – the film can better engage the audience on an emotional level. Because, as it stands, the film is not their story, but HIS story – and it has an opportunity to be a great story.
After all – who doesn’t love a happy ending?
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