After last week’s ripped-from-the-headlines stinker, it only seems right that we examine a true life story that won’t leave our faith in the film industry shaken. Again turning to Netflix, let us praise The Ryan White Story, a better-than-averave biopic that is also devoid of matricide.
The Ryan White Story profiles Ryan White, a teenage hemophiliac in Indiana who was infected with HIV through a blood transfusion in 1984 and had to fight in court the right to return to public school. A combination of bigotry and ignorance caused townspeople to accuse White as highly infectious. (The town seems more worried about toilet seats than untested blood donations.) The White family later moved to a different town in Indiana where Ryan was educated without prejudice. The film was released in 1989; Ryan died in 1990, a month short of his high school graduation.
The film ends with a smiling portrait of the real White family, to the tune of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” which is used early in the film. John was close to Ryan and served as a pallbearer at his funeral. He continues to honor the young man.
White provided a face and a safe symbol of an epidemic that had been raging for nine years when the film was released (Reagan didn’t acknowledge AIDS until 1987). HIV/AIDS was then seen as a gay man’s disease, and not a global crisis that can affect anyone. To that end, White’s struggle resulted in the Ryan White CARE Act, a federally funded program that aimed to improve the care for low-income, uninsured, and underinsured HIV/AIDS patients and their families.
As made-for-TV films go, particularly of those released in the 1980s, this is a crowning achievement. The Ryan White Story helped normalize victims of AIDS. It has all the hallmarks of an ’80s television film (TV stars, overwrought emotions) with all of the respect one would find in an Oscar picture.
One of the bonuses for the film is that it’s cast with young, rising stars. I’ll give us a moment for us to overcome the shock that Nikki Cox portrays Ryan’s sister:
When I think of Nikki Cox, I think of Unhappily Ever After, the WB show that led to her ascension. (Most of the series has been uploaded to YouTube. Enjoy!)
Sarah Jessica Parker has a minor role, and it harkens to her part in Flight of the Navigator: soothing, trusting, the kind of hip, cool woman a young man in the ’80s can trust.
Most significantly of the trio though is Lukas Haas, who was already a star, having broken out in 1985’s The Witness. Haas is incredible as White, bringing him to life in the film. It makes one ache for respect now that Haas is continuing his outstanding work in films like Brick, The Revenant, and Alpha Dog. Or ache for the years before Haas buddied up with Leonardo DiCaprio in the Pussy Posse, and reflect that as a member of the Pussy Posse, maybe Haas should remain underrated. (But that’s not how talent works.)
There are no complaints for the adult cast. Judith Light is Ryan’s mother, Jeanne, naturally. Light plays the role with less drama and precision than we saw in In Defense of A Married Man. For Light, if she hadn’t gone on to star in more incredible made-for-TV movies, and instead relegated herself to Who’s the Boss? and ABC primetime it would be her lifetime role. (It should be noted that Light is a committed gay rights activist.) Luckily for us however, Light is a diverse actress. She’s in Transparent and appeared on screen last year in a small role in Digging for Fire and on the stage in Thérèse Raquin. If we benefit in any way from this series, beyond the true stories that inspire these films, it’s that Judith Light is a national treasure.
The Ryan White Story is one of the few made-for-TV films available to stream on Netflix.