Director: Yen Tan
Screenwriter: Yen Tan, from a story by Tan and HutcH.
Cory Michael Smith
Ryan Piers Williams
Runtime: 85 mins.
Australian release date: 25 April 2019
Previewed at: Dendy Newtown, Sydney, on 11 March 2019.
1985, directed by Yen Tan, is a deeply honest portrayal of the horror that faced many gay and bisexual men in the 1980s when the AIDS virus first reared its ugly head. If you were around in those days and lost friends, it will profoundly touch you, but even if you weren’t personally affected by the disease, 1985 is one of the most moving and realistic depictions of that dark period seen to date. The choice to shoot on grainy 16 mm. black-and-white film adds to the bleak and stark representation of a time when there was so much ignorance, confusion and anxiety that relationships, friendships and families were torn apart. “Our decision to shoot on film is informed by the experience of making the short [eponymous eight-minute film in 2016]. We learned that the inherent grain structure immediately takes us back in time. Everything looks ‘period’ very effortlessly. From the set to the wardrobe, film has the organic vintage quality right out-of-the-box,” explains Tan. Plus, as the great Orson Welles once said, “Every performance looks better on black-and-white.”
Adrian Lester (Cory Michael Smith) is a young gay man who returns to his family home in Texas for the Christmas period. He had fled to NYC to get away from the restrictive views of his conservative, religious parents. His father Dale (Michael Chiklis), mother Eileen (Virginia Madsen) and younger brother Andrew (Aiden Langford) are closed off and withdrawn, unable to communicate with each other and the tension in the house is palpable. Understandably, Adrian has kept his sexuality from his parents and, unable to reveal the truth to them, he’s refrained from visiting the family since his departure three years earlier. Now he’s back, consumed with grief because he’s recently lost his partner to an AIDS-related illness yet he can’t open up to his loved ones about this and other secrets. Dale is a devoutly Christian church-goer who is particularly intolerant of homosexuality; Eileen, on the other hand, could possibly have twigged to her son’s gayness, but is unwilling to discuss it openly. This is, after all, the heart of Bible Belt America. Younger brother Andrew is a shy, sensitive kid who’s hurt and resentful because he doesn’t understand why Adrian reneged on a previous planned visit. In a poignant scene, Adrian talks to him about the importance of being true to himself and being prepared to accept the challenges that he will inevitably face when it comes to finding his own place in the world. At Eileen’s urging, Adrian also reacquaints himself with his old girlfriend, Carly (Jamie Chung), who’s unaware of his sexuality. In a powerful, extended single-take shot, the pair discuss - well, attempt to discuss - why things didn’t work out between them.
The outstanding performances in 1985 bring out all the subtlety and nuance in the Malaysian-born, now Austin-based Yen Tan’s excellent script. Smith, Madsen, Chiklis and Chung create strikingly real, authentic characterisations of their roles that almost feel like they’ve been captured in a documentary. Admittedly, the static b/w camera work of Hutch, who also co-produced and cut the film, adds to this fly-on-the-wall effect but these actors use all their skills to breathe life into these hurt, confused souls. They’re all wounded to some degree but Tan’s screenplay never becomes maudlin. A beautiful score by Curtis Heath keeps the film grounded, too, when it could have so easily strayed into saccharine territory.
1985 covers a period in history when many members of the LBGTQI community were at last able to come out to society at large but were then hit for six by a disease that set the gay movement back years. It is important that films like this are made today to show audiences how tough it was to be different in a world that had virtually no understanding of AIDS. 1985 is a stark reminder of a time of sadness and distress and a tribute to those whose lives were unaccountably cut short. It’s a credit to all concerned.