“Milk” is a brilliant experience. A pleasure. From Sean Penn’s full-immersion acting to the recreation of the San Francisco scene in the 1970s, the movie is authentic and ardent without being worshipful.

Milk was the openly gay Castro District activist who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. A year later, he was murdered, along with the city’s sympathetic mayor, by smoldering former supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).

All homage to Dustin Lance Black’s easygoing script and Penn’s sweet, flirty, bantering evocation of the gay Man with a Plan. His Harvey Milk is disarming and playful. No one is more surprised than Milk himself when he becomes a major power in San Francisco politics. Penn’s balance of humility and force is the reason he won an Oscar.

Thanks to the seamless use of archival news footage, Anita Bryant co-stars as the patron saint of heterosexual, white Christianity. Grainy photographs of gay men being harassed, rousted, beaten and arrested by the police remind one that it wasn’t so long ago that to be gay was to be hated. Not that things have changed all that much.

What Penn conveys was the humor Milk brought to the debate. When an uptight candidate declares that Milk would teach children the gay agenda, Milk mutters, “teach it? Is it like French?”

More revelatory is “My name is Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you,” the opening line for which Milk was famous. He’s playing with Anita Bryant’s head: he wants to recruit people, alright, recruit them to vote.

In the end, “Milk” is about discrimination and martyrdom. Its lesson — that prejudice can be defeated at the ballot box — is meant to be universal.

Nicole Ouellette

Nicole Ouellette

When Nicole isn't giving advice she's completely unqualified to give, she runs an Internet marketing company in Bar Harbor, where she lives with her husband Derrick and their short dog Gidget. She loves young adult novels, cooking and talking French to anyone who'll talk back. [email protected]