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TV movie review: Life Support (HBO)

Queen Latifah plays director Nelson George's sister in Life Support.

HBO's Life Support plays a bit like an old ABC Afterschool Special, although certainly a very adult one.

Awareness is imparted, love is reclaimed, light bulbs turn on. The movie eventually earns its stripes, though, thanks to some take-charge acting by Queen Latifah and effective performances by Anna Deavere Smith, Wendell Pierce and Rachel Nicks as her on-screen mother, husband and estranged daughter.

Premiering Saturday (March 10) at 7 p.m. central, Life Support is drawn from the real-life AIDS activism of HIV-positive Ana Wallace (Queen Latifah), whose brother, Nelson George, directed and co-wrote the film. Jamie Foxx has a co-executive producer credit, but had little hands-on involvement other than lending his A-list cred to the project. Which is no small contribution in itself.

Filmed in Brooklyn, Life Support begins at an AIDS survivor session in which African-American women talk bluntly about how they contracted the disease and in retrospect how dumb they were. Some of these women are real-life survivors whose stories are woven into the script. The movie later drops in the startling statistic that HIV is the leading cause of death among black women between the ages of 25 and 34.

Ana was infected by her husband, Slick (Pierce), during a time when both were drug addicts. They're straight now, and the parents of a nine-year-old girl. But Ana's teen daughter, Kelly (Nicks), whose blood father goes unmentioned, has long since rebelled and moved in with Ana's stern mother, Lucille (Anna Deaver Smith). The combustible mother-daughter-granddaughter dynamics give Life Support much of its punch.

An eventual subplot is the search for Kelly's gay, HIV-infected friend, Amare (Evan Ross), who's burned too many bridges for anybody to pity him anymore. Ana, bad feet and all, decides to comb the streets for Amare. Her encounter with a self-important rap producer is one of the film's highlights. "Well, ain't you a saint," she sniffs.

Life Support is further testament to HBO's continued determination to make movies that matter. It clearly wasn't greenlighted with any expectation it would be a ratings blockbuster. Still, this is a worthy investment of your time and HBO's money.

The big four broadcast networks long since have gotten out of the business of funding films with causes in their clauses. HBO still answers to these higher callings on occasion, even though it's an increasingly tough sell these days.

Grade: B+