The Cure tracks the misadventures of Erik (Brad Renfro) and Dexter (Joseph Mazzello), two likable kids who just happen to be conducting their own research into finding a cure for a fatal disease. Set against a fictitious small town ruled by close-mindedness and vicious mores, this tearjerker explores the unlikely relationship that blossoms between two young friends, even though one of them -- Dexter -- is slowly succumbing to the ravages of AIDS.
Obviously designed as an educational tool for Middle America, The Cure seeks a safe ground on which to wrestle with its subject. Though we are reassured several times that the odd and slightly effeminate Dexter caught the virus from a blood transfusion, all the neighborhood kids torment him with taunts of "faggot." Only Erik (who is a bit of an outcast) befriends the new kid on the block, confident that this diminutive 11-year-old is not queer.
Once they've dealt with the "homosexual" issue, first-time feature director (and thirty-something star) Peter Horton and screenwriter Robert Kuhn move on to the ways one can and cannot catch the disease, quickly resolving that Erik won't catch Dexter's virus by breathing the same air, etc.
While these scenes play as downright ignorant to enlightened urbanites, the filmmakers have still found a way to make them seem poignant. In a particularly touching sequence following a fun dinner, Dexter's mother (Anabella Sciorra) brings out the fudge sundaes, but after a few bites Dexter is too fatigued to finish. Having wolfed down his own, Erik eyes the unfinished dessert and asks shyly, "If you're not going to finish that, can I?" A dead silence fills the table, and Mom explains that though it is highly unlikely Erik could ever catch AIDS from sharing food with Dexter, they don't want to take any chances. Renfro -- who was last seen in The Client and puts in another quality performance here -- registers a slight embarrassment, but an even more profound compassion at finally realizing the graveness of his friend's plight.
At this point The Cure shifts gears, becoming a quasi-road movie, with the boys going on a wild adventure to seek out a quack in New Orleans who supposedly has found "the cure." The boys hitch a ride on a Mississippi riverboat with some shady characters, and once they realize the boat isn't going directly to New Orleans, Erik steals some cash from the owners and the daring duo run off to the nearest bus station.
The baddies find them, however, and Dexter wards them off by cutting his hand with a pocket knife and threatening to shower them with his blood. You may find yourself pondering, "Whoa, did I actually see that?" Though Horton and Kuhn have their hearts in the right place, the scene reinforces unfounded paranoia that there are AIDS "terrorists" out there willing to spray the virus around indiscriminately; even worse, the episode is exploited for its "action" potential, complete with rousing music and concluding with a joyous leap once the boys realize they've scared off the thugs.
Though Horton's television background filters through (which often turns this feature into a glorified movie of the week), The Cure works quite well in shedding light on a child's perspective toward the disease. And thanks to the strong performances from Renfro and Mazzello, you may find yourself unexpectedly forgiving its inadequacies and indulging in its weepy conclusion.
The Cure opens Fri, April 21, at the Kabuki in S.F., the Century Plaza in South S.F., and the Shattuck and UA Berkeley.