Milk tells the life and times of Harvey Milk, the first elected official to be openly gay. Milk's achievement is its message. Film director, Gus Van Sant, gives us a tribute to not only Milk as a regular guy moved to take action, but also offers a hopeful portrait of disparate people coming together to make a difference.

Don't get me wrong, Milk is not a preachy film. It doesn't hit you over the head with its message. Instead, Van Sant approaches his subject like a biopic. Rather than making the movie an ISSUE movie, Milk's focus on Harvey, his friends and his many (many) failed election campaigns lets you get to know our lead guy over time. You want to see him succeed and you come to understand the universal nature of his struggle.

As Harvey Milk, Sean Penn turns in another stellar performance, proving his versatility - once again. (As if I needed any further confirmation since his magnetic and unforgettable Jeff Spicoli incarnation in 1982. That still rates as flick chick's favorite Penn performance.)

Milk is bursting with great performances. Josh Brolin (on quite the hot streak), James Franco, Emile Hirsch and Diego Luna inhabit their roles fully and naturally. That's quite a feat given the 1970s era of the film, which can easily look more like a day of costume and groovy fashion, than a human story.

Telling universal human stories is what director Van Sant excels at. From Drugstore Cowboy to To Die For to Good Will Hunting to Elephant, Van Sant's chief strength is as a storyteller. His focus on the relationships and bonds between people draws the viewer in and makes you care about the characters regardless of their good or bad traits. That is the one bone I have to pick with Van Sant and Milk.

There's not enough of Harvey's negative side. Sure, we get he's a generally good guy with a big heart. Still, there are moments in the film that sidestep some big questions about Harvey, his motivations and (gasp) even his likability. Why not deal with those moments head on? I don't think that showing Harvey as a person with flaws or lapses would make the audience turn on him. Van Sant and the writers should have trusted the audience more.

Milk offers a timely history of cultural battles won, lost and battles still raging. One of the film's narrative centerpieces revolves around a late 1970s ballot initiative in California that sought to remove anti-discrimination protection for homosexuals. Way back in the 1970s, the initiative failed. That moment of validation in the movie was rightly depicted as a monumental and joyous event. However, the divisive rhetoric used by those who proposed the initiative had an eerie way of sounding all too familiar 30 years later, and our hero's victory seemed more than a little nostalgic and naive in the wake of current defeats of similar propositions just weeks ago.

Despite the sad arc of Milk's story, the movie nevertheless ends on a hopeful note. Milk has something to say and something to offer about our shared history and our shared future.

FLICK CHICK SAYS: Worth a Trip to the Movies