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TELEVISION REVIEW

MTV fails to capture the real Pedro

Alex Loynaz as Pedro Zamora. Alex Loynaz as Pedro Zamora.
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / April 1, 2009
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Anyone who watched MTV's "The Real World: San Francisco" in 1994 probably feels a bond with the late Pedro Zamora. He was the rare reality star whose modesty and appeal triumphed over the contrivances of the genre, a kid whose passion to connect, to raise awareness about AIDS, and, finally, to live, was easy to admire. With his thick eyebrows, his wry eyes, and his relentless zeal for honesty, Zamora was ever the endearing younger brother.

Certainly, that was one of his biggest accomplishments as an HIV/AIDS educator, that he provided the entire MTV audience with one of its first openly HIV-positive and proudly gay young men. But there was more to Zamora, who died in 1994, the day after the last episode of "The Real World: San Francisco" aired. And little of that Zamora is evident in MTV's new biopic, "Pedro," tonight at 8. This is the kind of lazy life story that runs through a few notable moments, tries to wring a few tears, and never captures the person and the heroism that led to the making of a biopic in the first place.

I'd say that "Pedro" is the movie equivalent of a Wikipedia entry, except that Zamora's Wikipedia page has more to offer than this shallow effort. Surprisingly, "Pedro" was written by Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Milk." In "Milk," Black and director Gus Van Sant brought us a full sense of Harvey Milk's personality quirks and charisma, as well as his role in history. At the end of that movie, when I saw the real Milk, I felt as though I'd just spent time with him. In "Pedro," Black and director Nick Oceano give us a guy who looks slightly like Zamora (Alex Loynaz) but who evokes none of Zamora's spirit. And then they rely heavily on disease-of-the-week cliches to add some narrative structure. When the real Zamora appears in a clip at the very end, I felt an awkward disconnect.

The emphasis on re-creating scenes from "The Real World: San Francisco" in "Pedro" is perhaps the biggest misstep. By scripting and restaging moments from the San Francisco house, the filmmakers seem to be elevating and promoting "The Real World" in a way that does not serve the story of Zamora. And then it's jarring and a little ridiculous to watch actors portraying reality characters, especially indelible ones such as Puck (Matt Barr) and Rachel (Karolin Luna). The mind reels during these sequences - actors playing real people who were playing characters but who were nonetheless real. This isn't supposed to be a movie about layers of truth and reality TV; it's about an extraordinary person.

Some of the movie is narrated by Judd Winick (Hale Appleman), the "Real World" roommate who became one of Pedro's close friends and eventually married roommate Pam Ling (Jenn Liu). (By the way, the real Winick, Ling, and their child have a brief cameo.) Frankly, the Zamora-Winick bond has been chronicled at length, on MTV and by Winick in his graphic novel "Pedro and Me." "Pedro" seems freshest and most revelatory the further it gets from his MTV era, as it gives up bits of information about the Zamora family's move from Cuba in 1980 and explores his relationship with his sister, Mily, played by Justina Machado from "Six Feet Under."

What pushed the pre-"Real World" Zamora to turn his life into a "teaching moment," as we say? "Pedro" doesn't show us why he stood up against public ignorance, against his father and sister's wishes, against Puck and all the Pucks in the world who sought conflict with him. Fifteen years after Zamora's death, at a time when HIV transmission remains a significant problem in the United States, the movie fails to recall his drive and motivation.

PEDRO Starring: Alex Loynaz, Justina Machado, Hale Appleman, DaJuan Johnson

On: MTV

Time: Tonight, 8-10

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