Review: Yen Tan’s Moving ‘1985’

From right to left: Michael Chiklis, Virginia Madsen, Cory Michael Smith and Aidan Langford in ‘1985’ (photo: HutcH).

1985, the poignant film from Yen Tan, takes place during Christmas near Fort Worth, Texas, during the titular year when the closeted, HIV-positive Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) comes home after a three-year absence to spend the holidays with his family.

Adrian has been keeping his real life secret from his loved ones, but he needs to see them for what he is sure will be the last time.

He’s been living in New York and has always boasted about having a high-paying job at a top advertising agency, but something doesn’t add up.

Upon his arrival, his father, Dale (Michael Chiklis) regards him with distrust, but his less judgmental mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), welcomes him with open arms. She wants to overfeed him, though…because he’s so thin.

Like Dale, Adrian’s younger brother, Andrew (Aidan Langford), is similarly standoffish, still stinging from feeling abandoned by his elder brother. As the days pass, the siblings form a completely new bond as they realize they have something more in common than just their parents.

On Christmas Day, Adrian lavishes the family with expensive gifts, but it feels more like an act of finality than generosity. He’s always on the verge of telling them something — everything — but he can’t seem to muster up the courage to do it.

Urged by Eileen, Adrian goes to Dallas to see his former girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung), who misinterprets his reappearance after being away so long as an interest in rekindling their relationship.

When he rebuffs her, she reacts in humiliated fury. Their roots run too deep, though, and when she gets a chance to cool off, she drives to his house to clear things up. In one of the film’s finest and most affecting scenes, he confides to her all of the secrets he’d been wanting to tell his parents since he arrived.

For 1985, Tan has assembled a fine cast. Gruff Vietnam war veteran Dale is a man of few words, but Tan allows his character more layers than the typical tough conservative. The script also provides dimension to the caring Eileen. She plays the role of the religiously devout and faithful wife for Dale, but she secretly confides to Adrian that she’d voted Democratic in the last election.

Young Langford’s precocious portrayal is also remarkable, effectively expressing the mixed emotions of a young man who is afraid of disappointing his father but can’t deny who he is.

Chung is also fine as the tough-talking but ultimately tender-hearted Carly — but it’s Smith who truly carries the film. He conveys so many of Adrian’s emotions, without speaking at all, and he infuses other little moments with jarring poignancy. Sitting on his childhood bed with the old grizzled family German Shepherd, he strokes his beloved pal’s ears and asks him: “If you go first, will you wait for me? Because if I go first, I’ll wait for you.”

The decision to shoot 1985 on super 16mm black and white film is a wise one, as it visually seals the drama in the recent past and enhances the bleaker aspects of the story. It was a time when gay people were forced to remain in silence to avoid being ostracized (or worse) and an HIV-positive diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.

The stark, grainy photography also provides the locations with a melancholy small-town home feeling. It looks like home, but it’s a home Adrian doesn’t feel like he’s a part of anymore.

1985 opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Oct. 26.

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