As a melancholy icon for our troubled times, nothing could top "The Cure." It's a modern version of "Huck Finn," with Tom and Huck riding the raft down the Mississippi, except this time Tom has AIDS.
Of course it shouldn't be judged as an icon, but as a movie. In that regard, it's somewhat flawed. Essentially a "feelings" kind of piece, it follows as two 11-year-old neighbors awkwardly meet and bond, even though the smaller of them is fatally infected with the virus. Soon the boys are determined to find a cure for the disease and try a number of goofy natural remedies.
When they fall for a cruel illusion in a tabloid that a New Orleans doctor has found the actual cure, they run away. They hitchhike down the Mississippi (they're located in Minnesota), having adventures along the way until at last they run out of money, time and luck.
Director Peter Horton (of "thirtysomething" semi-fame) generally avoids the sentimental or the trite. I admired the way in which he faces the bad news straight up without being terribly coy about it and the way in which he allowed each boy to have a dark, even an ugly side. Too many scripts on such a topic would turn each boy into a little paragon of perfection.
Brad Renfro, who was the young hero of "The Client," is Erik, the older of the boys. It's a great performance. He's got an ugly fantasy life going, secretly executing or burning plastic soldiers in the backyard, stealing Butterfingers from the convenience store, playing dirty tricks on the boys who pick on him. He's a loner, a loser, a bitter exile from the South whose languid accents make him the butt of jokes of the others.
The scrawny neighbor is Dexter, effervescent, cute and spirited, but well aware of how bleak his future is. Joseph Mazzello, of "Jurassic Park" and "The River Wild," never becomes cloying or pathetic, and the movie doesn't treat him like a little plaster saint.
The feelings between them feel quite spontaneous; they begin with Erik's assumed superiority, which quickly enough modulates into compassion and then love. But it never becomes sugary and the movie starts and stays edgy.
For example, one of the cures almost poisons poor Dexter; and the relations between the involved adults -- Erik's bitter mother (Diana Scarwid) and Dexter's decent mom (Annabella Sciorra) -- are frequently ugly and contentious.
More important, the "adventures" the two have when they run away have a desperate, squalid, even dangerous sense to them. Horton (from the script of Robert Kuhn) never falls for anything hokey, like making a last dream come true with a trip to Disney World or a meeting with Ken Griffey Jr. The friendship itself is the dream; and it is true.
Alas, the movie has no place to go but down. Horton wants to avoid sentimentality at the end, but the device he choses, an elaborate prank Erik devises that backfires big-time, feels grotesque and unsettling. It's the year's first feel-bad picture.
Starring Joseph Mazzello and Brad Renfro
Directed by Peter Horton
Released by Universal
Rated PG-13 (language)
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