Three brutally slow, painfully lethargic months is how long Caleb (a flourishing Troye Sivan), the young Jewish man at the heart of this coming-of-age movie, has to wait to find out if he has contracted HIV. It’s his post-graduation and pre-college summer where most are embarking on the next exciting stage of their life, but Caleb is in limbo awaiting a diagnosis that is simply ‘positive’ or ‘negative.’ A feature debut, writer-director Jared Frieder’s Three Months has all the core set pieces, a fantastic cast, and a bubbling sense of humour but lacks the grounded depth to fulfil its true potential.
It’s 2011 and Caleb is cycling through the streets of Florida on a tandem bike, alone. The image of the empty back seat has you prepared for a depressing queer indie but Three Months diverts from this premise. Caleb’s doctor (Javier Muñoz) invites him to an HIV support group where he meets sweet Estha (Viveik Kalra), a young Indian man who is “also… waiting.” Words that make Caleb perk up, realising he’s not the only one; he doesn’t have to ride on the tandem solo.
Being sent back into the world to live his life, bubbling panic stretches into an unsettlingly omnipresent worry as Caleb bounces between the support group and his convenience store job where his lesbian best friend Dara (the brilliant Brianne Tju) and their boss (Judy Greer) are having a wildly inappropriate affair. Caleb’s stability, away from this chaos, is at home. After his father passed and his mother kicked him out after marrying the local Rabbi, Caleb lives with his grandmother and step-grandfather (veteran Oscar winners Ellen Burstyn and Lou Gossett, Jr.) who are in constant debate over their nursing home future. Caleb hasn’t told them about his diagnosis. So in these four walls, he can blissfully exist as if a countdown isn’t ticking.
As June merges into July, Caleb’s restlessness grows. As do his blooming feelings for Estha. A tentative romance between the two young men is steeped in equal parts yearning and apprehension. The latter radiates from Estha with powerful force, he has not yet told his parents and is buckling under a shame he can’t seem to shake. Beach trips and amusement park dates establish a togetherness for the two adolescents but Frieder doesn’t quite linger enough to cement the emotions of this relationship. Hitting the rather conventional beats, Three Months stays in safe territory as a teen rom-com. Conversations between the pair never burrow further than surface-level dialogue. While the lighthearted, and occasionally jovial, tone is preserved, the film never truly achieves a thorough exploration of the nuances of modern youth confronting HIV diagnoses.
Bar the partial slightness of the script, Three Months includes impressive characterisations bolstered by the eloquent performances of its strong cast. Sivan is the spearhead of the film, embodying the sharp charm and sly wit of Caleb with boundless energy and acute qualities of youthful frustration and vulnerability. Having now appeared in several features (Boy Erased and X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Three Months sees him settle into a pertinent role where he’s unequivocally the driving force. Sivan is truly impressive; not only the leading voice of the film but showcasing his vocal talent alongside the soundtrack’s soaring beats.
While Kalra has adequate chemistry with Sivan, it is the latter and Tju who revive the film from its more sluggish moments. Together, Sivan and Tju are exceptional. With their dance parties when they shut the shop early to stoned conversations where hearts and minds meld, the actors are perfectly paired. However, Three Months falls into a frustrating habit of sidelining its lesbian character. Dara’s plotline becomes little more than dramatic inclusion as her affair with an older woman goes awry. Although Three Months finally picks back up with Dara by the end, Tju’s excellent performance deserved better.
In one scene, Caleb and Dara sit on a rooftop overlooking their graduation – the pair wistfully watch their time at high school dissolve from afar. Having just found out about the possibility of Caleb’s HIV positive diagnosis, Dara is optimistic as she remarks “people live with this shit forever now.” It is this semblance of knowledge that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence for Caleb that feels particularly timely, Three Months encroaches the stigma of HIV with a refreshing grounding.
Setting this story in 2011 poses an interesting context to Three Months. Rooting this narrative in recent memory tinges Caleb’s story with a real touching poignance that feels resoundingly essential considering the younger audience that Sivan’s appearance will undoubtedly bring in. For his debut feature, Frieder has a good handle on crafting characters and is adding a valuable addition to the canon of queer coming-of-age films with Three Months.
Three Months begins streaming on Paramount+ February 23.