In Yen Tan’s brilliantly calibrated 1985, Adrian Lester (Cory Michael Smith), a closeted young man, returns to his small Texan town for Christmas for the first time in three years. His reasons for staying away are immediately apparent: his interaction with his conservative father is strained, his mother fusses over how thin he is, and his younger brother holds a grudge against him for his prolonged absence. But something has changed for Adrian this year, something big, and it’s prompted him to put past disagreements behind in order to spend Christmas with his family.
1985 is in some ways a very simple film, focussed on letting the plot unfold through the uncomfortable but beautiful moments of everyday interaction between characters. But this simplicity is what actually makes the film so wonderfully complex. Like with most families, the real issues remain unspoken and Tan uses this tension to approach a difficult subject matter with remarkable delicacy.
There is a lot going on outside the frame, a big and tragic narrative that fills in as we learn more about Adrian’s life and what’s brought him back home: he’s been diagnosed with HIV and is already showing the signs of full-blown AIDs, a disease that’s ravaging his community in the city. As he tells his friend and ex-girlfriend, Carly (a charming Jamie Chung), he’s been to nine funerals in the past year, one for his own partner. It’s a bleak reality that Adrian is still coming to terms with, and he’s come home one last time to say goodbye.
Tan’s approach is light of touch but deft, with excellently paced scenes and wonderfully real characters. Adrian’s parents, played by Michael Chiklis and Virginia Madsen, are particularly compelling and likeable despite their faults. Adrian’s brother, Andrew (Aidan Langford), is adorably in need of his big brother’s counsel (and music recommendations). The family is flawed, awkward, and ultimately quite sweet, which makes the knowledge of Adrian’s circumstances that much more heart-breaking.
If there’s one criticism I can make of 1985, it’s regarding Tan’s choice to film in black and white Super 16. For a film with a family and characters that feel authentic to the era, the timeless quality of black and white is distancing. The film is otherwise so effective in capturing this moment in history at the height of the AIDs epidemic when very little was known about the disease, and even less about how to treat it, that it feels like Tan missed a trick in conveying the decade in all its gaudy glory. Not to suggest an ‘80s pop/John Hughes aesthetic, but a touch of gritty nostalgia could have worked in favour of this already immersive story of a young man struggling with the brutal reality of the time in which he lives and loves.
Ultimately, though, Tan's efforts at balancing sentiment and story are effective in crafting a beautiful and moving film that sill stay with you long after the final goodbye.