Before You Know It is one of the better documentaries playing at the Florida Film Festival. It tells the story of three American men who share only two things in common: all three are over the age of 65, and all three are homosexual. Their stories are radically different but they all struggle with what it means to be a gay man in the waning years of life. The film is by turns joyful, heartbreaking, funny, and hopeful. It is also at times very life affirming, and the story is affecting whatever your sexual orientation.
Dennis lives in Niceville, Florida in a trailer cluttered with the detritus of a long life. Only after the death of his wife of many years did he begin to explore his sexuality. Still closeted to the world, particularly his family, he begins to split his time between Florida and Portland, Oregon where he moves into a retirement home that caters to gay and lesbian seniors. Ty is a gay advocate in Harlem who works for an organization that supports the senior LGBT community. He hopes to marry his longtime partner when New York State legalizes gay marriage. Robert owns a gay bar in Galveston, Texas and is a beloved fixture of the community, but he struggles with health problems as well as a lawsuit that could close down the bar he's run for decades.
It's a tribute to director PJ Raval how quickly the audience becomes fully invested in the lives of these three men. Each man is radically different: Dennis is shy and reserved but starving for love and acceptance, Robert is flamboyant and theatrical, and Ty is passionate, driven and ebullient. What unites these three men is their awareness of their own mortality and desire to wrench as much from their remaining years as possible. For Ty and Robert that means living their lives as they always have, but for Dennis it means fully embracing his own needs and desires after a lifetime of denying them.
There are so many affecting scenes in the film, many involving Dennis' search for love and acceptance. His trip on a gay cruise doesn't go as planned, and his entrance in a drag show ends in embarrassment as a result of his own lack of self confidence. It is tragic, and only makes a moment of triumph for him later in the film all the sweeter. In many ways Dennis' story is the most compelling because of how far he comes. For Ty and Robert drama is found in everyday events, and it is the universal nature of their struggles that makes their stories so accessible.
Reviewing a documentary like this makes it very hard not to veer into political territory, particularly because the film deals so intimately with the struggles of LGBT people. I have very little patience for those prejudiced toward the gay community. Before You Know It so expertly humanizes their plight that I think if more people saw films like this, it would be harder for the bigots to deny gay folks their basic rights.