'1985': Film Review | SXSW 2018

1985 Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of Dutch Rall
A model of eloquent restraint.

Yen Tan's drama stars Cory Michael Smith as a closeted gay man returning during the AIDS crisis to his Texas hometown and religious parents, played by Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis.

Going home with a suitcase full of secrets to unpack is never easy. That's especially true for the protagonist of 1985, an intimate domestic drama set against the first wave of the AIDS crisis in Ronald Reagan's America. A thematic extension of writer-director Yen Tan's short of the same name, this sensitively observed period piece evokes the aching difficulty of coming out in a recent past distanced by three intervening decades of progress in gay rights and cultural visibility. Anchored by a deeply felt central performance from Cory Michael Smith, the modest but affecting film should find a receptive niche with LGBT audiences.

While the shadowy textures of black-and-white 16mm and a quiet melodic score effectively conjure melancholy echoes of the past, the motivation for revisiting such a bleak time in queer history may not immediately be clear. But Tan appears to be responding to the retrogressive entrenchment of hard-line conservative values and intolerance in pockets of American life today.

Having trained a compassionate gaze on the loneliness of gay men in small-town Texas in his last feature, Pit Stop, he locks in here, with greater emotional involvement, on the acute isolation experienced by gay sons in Bible Belt families. It goes without saying that the situation for many youths from similar backgrounds probably hasn't changed a lot in 30-plus years.

Smith (The Riddler on Gotham, also seen in Todd Haynes' Carol and Wonderstruck) plays Adrian, a New York transplant in his 20s, returning home to Fort Worth for Christmas after a three-year absence. The somewhat stiff greeting he receives at the airport from his tough Vietnam-vet father Dale (Michael Chiklis) suggests that the gulf between them predated Adrian's cross-country move. His mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), is a different story, smothering him in warmth and affection the minute he steps through the door. His early-teenage brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) initially is more standoffish, reluctant to forgive Adrian for a past disappointment. But the affinity between the siblings, and their shared sense of not belonging, will draw them together during Adrian's stay.

From the front-yard Nativity scene to the Christian talk radio piping through the house at breakfast, this is no longer an environment in which Adrian feels comfortable, even if his love for his family is never in doubt. It's clear from the start that he's burdened by truths he longs to share — about his sexuality, his health, his recent devastating loss — but either his own fears or unspoken signals from his parents keep shutting him down. As if atoning for feelings he can't or won’t articulate, he gives them extravagant Christmas gifts that embarrass his father in particular.

Still, while this is chiefly a film about doors that remain closed, it's graced by lovely moments of indirect but meaningful communication such as Adrian and Andrew's conspiratorial pact over an illicit Madonna cassette, or Eileen's hushed confession that she voted Democrat in the last election. Even Dale, who knows far more than he lets on at first, offers his version of loving support. Tan is not unsympathetic to this hardened man's sorrow as he acknowledges his fear of Andrew also drifting away.

When Adrian reveals the full story of his life in New York, it's not to his family but in a moving scene with Carly (Jamie Chung), the Korean-American girlfriend from his teen years. Like Andrew, she first has to get over her feeling that he abandoned her, and then she misreads his renewed interest as a sexual advance — despite being cool enough to take him to a gay-friendly club in Dallas. (In a subtle connective thread to Tan's previous feature, Adrian's attention is drawn to Pit Stop leads Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda in a romantic clinch on the dance floor.) The sadness of Adrian's experience, and his gnawing failure to be able to share his private life with his family, is countered by his relief at finally being open with someone from that world.

Tan's screenplay — from a story he developed with his mononymous producer, cinematographer and co-editor, HutcH — doesn't entirely avoid cliche. But the integrity of the performances, the believability of the relationships and the authenticity of the milieu keep it from spilling over into mawkishness. Even when dealing with loaded themes such as stigmatization, bullying, death, denial and the shattering possibility of final farewells, the director's gentle touch adds resonance. That's especially so in a beautifully played closing scene between Adrian and his mother that provides comfort even as it telegraphs the pain that lies ahead.

Production companies: MuseLessMime Productions, Cranium Entertainment, in association with Floren Shieh Productions, Rainmaker Films
Cast: Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis, Jamie Chung, Aidan Langford
Director-screenwriter: Yen Tan
Story by Yen Tan, HutcH
Producers: HutcH, Ash Christian
Executive producers: Clay Floren, Clay Pecorin, Aimee Shieh, Russell Geyser, Cory Michael Smith, Nancy Schafer, Ian Brownell, Monte Zajicek, Stacey Davis, Grey Sample, Brooke Christian, Brent Brewer, Brett Brewer
Director of photography: HutcH
Production designer: Brittany Ingram
Costume designer: Nichole Hull
Music: Curtis Heath, Dutch Rall
Editors: HutcH, Yen Tan
Sales: Paradigm
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Visions)

85 minutes