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‘1985’ Review: A Quietly Unassuming Tearjerker

Yen Tan’s miracle of a film masterfully sets a heartbreaking, small-scaled familial story against the massive backdrop of the AIDS crisis.
By  · Published on March 10th, 2018

Yen Tan’s miracle of a film masterfully sets a heartbreaking, small-scaled familial story against the massive backdrop of the AIDS crisis.

In writer-director Yen Tan’s gracefully modest 1985­, everyone holds back something behind a misleading façade. Through a richly hypnotic story set during the early period of the AIDS/HIV crisis under the Ronald Reagan presidency, Tan institutes a somber pull almost immediately and reveals the unspoken truths of his characters in thoughtful increments, by allowing us to take an intimate peek into their souls. With 1985 (co-written by Hutch), he evokes an earnest sense of melancholy in grainy black-and-white that keeps on swelling until it shatters your heart unexpectedly. A tearjerker of the most generous kind (think an easygoing Cameron Crowe film stripped off all pretention and instead filled with Kenneth Lonergan sensibilities), Tan’s film doesn’t dare to manipulate your emotions to score a cheapened payoff. Instead, it gently lends a guiding hand to the viewers while its historic backdrop hits upon irrefutable present-day relevance. Since 1985, the country certainly has come far for LGBTQ rights. But we know all too well it still has ways to go when it comes to eliminating hateful prejudice.

We follow Adrian (Gotham’s Cory Michael Smith in a haunting performance), a closeted gay man, as he returns to his conservative Bible Belt Dallas suburb to spend the holidays with his deeply religious family. Working at an advertising agency in New York, Adrian is sweet-natured and slender (that he lost weight is instantly recognized by his mother), and unassumingly wears a sophisticated big city flavor on his sleeve. Though he does so pleasantly, without a shred of arrogance. All the same, he stands out next to his hard-edged blue-collar father Dale (Michael Chiklis) and his bashfully down-to-earth mother Eileen (Virginia Madsen). He noticeably doesn’t fit into a home that blasts Christian radio, bans the ‘promiscuous’ music of Madonna and is puzzled by extravagant Christmas presents.

From the minute Adrian steps into his childhood home, we sense an undercurrent of Pleasantville-esque tension in the air, lurking beneath the severely polite exchanges and uncomfortable conversations shared around the dining table. Adrian’s young, pimply brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), who clearly looks up to his older idol, seems dismissive and cold. Dale visibly holds his breath to not let out too much while Eileen goes out of her way to soften the mood. Meanwhile Adrian, stuck in a losing battle with the disease and broken down by its growing horrors (“I attended 6 funerals in the last year,” he weeps, in a heartrending scene), struggles to say his final goodbyes in secret and makes amends with his longtime friend/ex-girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung); a liberal and an aspiring standup comedian.

And secrets start pouring out of 1985, aiming to astonish us (and Adrian) with its side characters that continually prove to harbor more than we initially give them credit for. For all his implicit unpleasantness (some of it, undoubtedly circumstantial), Dale might not be a horrible father after all. And is Eileen as uninformed and out-of-touch as we initially suspect, or Carly, as stubborn? What about Andrew, whom Adrian gradually sees through in a series of poignant sibling bonding scenes–what kind of a future would await him? 1985 is so big-hearted and well-composed that even a seemingly unimportant friend of Adrian’s from high school years gets an affecting scene in which he gets to apologize for his past, bullying behavior.

Tan has pulled off a rare, miracle of a film in which all creative and narrative decisions purposely intensify an eventual emotional objective. As soft and cozy as a lullaby and sober as a page out of a history book, 1985 is both a distant, accidental thematic companion to Robin Campillo’s BPM and a respectful elegy to a generation of AIDS victims and survivors.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.