Yen Tan’s “1985” takes a long time to reveal that it’s about AIDS, but for any gay man over 30, the title alone will likely be enough to give it away from the very start.
Set, obviously enough, in 1985, Tan’s movie takes place in a small suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, where young Manhattanite Adrian is returning for a holiday visit with his conservative, blue-collar family. The reunion is cheerful enough, on the surface, but fraught with an undercurrent of tension; the evangelical values of his deeply religious parents have long prevented Adrian from opening up to them about his sexuality, and his escape to a career in New York has left his younger brother Andrew feeling resentful and abandoned. To make matters worse, Adrian is carrying a new secret – one tied directly to the still-unspoken truth of his identity – and must come to terms with the knowledge that this return to the home of his childhood may well be his last.
In his screenplay, Tan takes a different approach than most previous films about the AIDS crisis – which typically take a queer-centric view of the experience, setting their drama in large urban centers among a community of gay men and often focusing on activism – and brings it into the heart of a Middle America that was bent on ignoring it. In doing so, he avoids relying on the tropes of its setting and situation by infusing each of his characters with the equal humanity that they deserve.
Adrian, the formerly-closeted small-town gay boy who must return to the home from which he got away, is easily relatable to any of the millions who face the same holiday pilgrimage year after year; but so are his parents – whose awkwardness and discomfort are no less genuine than their son’s, and who, in the hands of a less honest filmmaker, might easily have been portrayed as mere stereotypes. These three characters, along with little brother Andrew and former high school girlfriend Carly, engage each other throughout in scenes that illuminate the personal impact of the epidemic. Much of what happens between them may seem banal, on the surface, especially between parents and son; but Tan gives us a symphony of subtext that speaks volumes and leaves us aching for them all.
It helps that “1985” is blessed with gifted performers. Cory Michael Smith is remarkable as Adrian, a character with immense emotional weight. His solemn and guarded performance embodies his increasingly difficult struggle to carry it bravely, avoiding the sentimental choices of playing him either as victim or as hero, and instead making him beautifully – and painfully – human.
Michael Chiklis is the picture of blue-collar manhood as the dad, but there’s a sensitivity underneath, struggling to be understood and to manifest in his relationships. In direct opposition to him is Virginia Madsen as the mom, who seems the obedient housewife and homemaker, but whose nurturing instincts make her a beacon of unconditional love – even if she can’t quite bring herself to say it.
Rounding out the principal cast are Aidan Langford, who is touching and genuine as preteen Andrew, and Jamie Chung, who brings dimension to her role as Carly – a character who must put aside her own bruised feelings to become the much-needed receiver of truth from someone who hurt her long ago.
As for Tan’s direction, he has crafted a subtle, quietly powerful film. Shot on Super 16mm film by regular Tan collaborator HutcH (who also collaborated on the story from which the filmmaker built his screenplay), the movie’s silvery black-and-white cinematography evokes a vaguely melancholic nostalgia which contributes to its carefully orchestrated emotional resonance – ultimately paying off in little moments that pack an enormous wallop. Yes, it’s manipulation, but it’s earned; this is no cynical, pandering tearjerker, but the work of an artist who seeks to deliver a truthful experience.
What is perhaps most remarkable here is that Tan – who is gay but, at 43, too young to have experienced the AIDS pandemic firsthand – has managed to create a film that speaks to the experience of an entire generation that survived it. Inspired by the stories of dying men with whom he worked in his first out-of-college job (at a company buying life insurance policies for cash in the ‘90s), he brings to the topic the perspective of hindsight. The distance of time, while it does not reduce his movie’s sense of tragedy, allows it to glimmer with the warmth of hope – something that was hard to find in the middle of those dark days when a positive diagnosis meant certain death. There is so much sadness in “1985,” but it’s a bittersweet movie – not a bleak one – that offers a kind of emotional closure denied to so many for so long.
To reveal how it does so would be unfair. Although Tan’s film, like its characters, is painstakingly discreet in discussing its subject matter (notably, and impressively, it never once mentions the words “AIDS” or “gay”), revealing that Adrian is dying of the disease is no spoiler; it’s the movie’s delicate journey toward bringing resolution to the seemingly unresolvable that is its true secret, and it’s one that deserves to be experienced firsthand.
“1985” opens in Los Angeles for limited release on October 26.