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April 21, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

You can’t stick AIDS in a movie and not expect viewers to look for a message. In THE CURE (Universal, PG-13), an 11-year-old boy contracts the disease from a blood transfusion, and his best friend, unprejudiced and fearless, elicits laughs by concocting ”cures” for his ailing buddy. The two have some adventures, and then the sick boy dies, neatly and painlessly. The moral appears to be that the close bond between the ailing Dexter (Joseph Mazzello from Jurassic Park and The River Wild) and Erik (Brad Renfro from The Client) is a model for compassionate behavior in the face of a terrible scourge. That’s a nice sentiment-but there’s something amiss in this uplifting story. The Cure is more My Girl (or even Brian’s Song) than Longtime Companion, and by bringing AIDS into the equation but ignoring it (at least as a ravager of minds and bodies), screenwriter Robert Kuhn and director Peter Horton shirk the responsibilities that go with giving the disease to a kid. A dying child is emotional blackmail; a child dying of AIDS is an emotional bludgeon, and a filmmaker would do well to keep the case very, very specific, rather than make the deterioration a poetic mystery. That said, what works in The Cure-the only reason to see such a thoroughly depressing film-is the relationship between the two boys, rendered with lovely nuance by thirtysomething alumnus Horton. Mazzello is naturally endearing and Renfro, especially, is a remarkably instinctive young actor. For that matter, Diana Scarwid is strong as Erik’s hard-mouthed, chain-smoking, ignorant mother, and Annabella Sciorra is well modulated as Dexter’s compassionate mom (both of them are single, by the way, although we never learn why-another dodge?). But the moms are created solely to bracket the communication between the boys. What makes us weep is not that Dexter has AIDS but that Dexter and Erik have each other, until death do them part. It’s an odd feat to create a dramatic story that moves us to tears yet makes us not care about AIDS. The Cure has managed that miracle.

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