The fourth feature from queer filmmaker Yen Tan is a surprising departure for him as it a sad remembrance of the impact of the AIDS pandemic on American families, from an era that was way before his time and far removed from where he grew up. As a whole debate continues about the need for movies about the epidemic still being made, we should add that this particular film is such a beautifully compassionate finely nuanced story totally lacking in the usual melodrama that so merits it finding the audience that it deserves.
It’s the tale of Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) a seemingly successful advertising executive in NY who is returning to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas for the first time in years to spend Christmas with his family. There is tension in the air the moment he lands at the airport when he is met by his gruff blue-collar father (Michael Chiklis) and they ride home together in almost complete silence. There is a much warmer welcome from his mother (Virginia Madsen) who is overjoyed to see him, something that his much younger sibling Andrew (Aidan Langford) is not as he is still bearing a grudge that his trip to visit Adrian in NY got suddenly canceled.
However, over the next few days of the visit, it slowly becomes increasingly obvious that the strained relations with the family are because Adrian is only sharing selected highlights of his life back in NY, most of which are either exaggerated or untrue. It is only with his young brother that Adrian is most comfortable and the two start to re-bond together particular over how the strict conservative religious beliefs of their father impinge on both their lives.
One of the most intriguing facets of Tan’s drama (that he co-wrote with Hutch) is the deliberate ambiguity of the script. Nowhere are the words ‘gay’ or ‘AIDS’ ever mentioned but they are implied, and so is the fact that the father is victimizing Andrew because he is probably gay too.
We slowly realize that the reason why Adrian has finally come home is essentially to say goodbye to his family, but as he makes such a mess of coming out to Carly (Jaime Chung) his childhood girlfriend, we know that he is never going to find the actual words to tell them.
There is one small scene after he finally breaks down to Carly and asks her to promise to tell Andrew all about him later on, and another scene when his mother finally drops him off at the airport and simply says; “when you are ready to tell me, I’ll be here for you.” which will open the tear floodgates for you.
Shot in black and white and on film makes the look of the film starker and more authentic. The cast give pitch-perfect performances especially Smith as the patient Adrian as he tries to navigate his parent’s expectations of him and is determined to ensure that the last memories will be happy ones.
By homing in on one man’s personal struggle with both his sexuality and the inevitability of his AIDS diagnosis in 1985, Tan puts the whole epidemic into a context that is probably much more relatable to most people than any historical documentary. This largely unspoken drama of Adrian’s is powerfully moving and devastatingly sad and whether you lived through a similar crisis or not, it will touch you to your very core.
Of all of Tan’s excellent features which for we have given nothing less than the rave reviews they deserved, this one will probably end up being recognized as his best.
‘1985’ will be shown at Frameline 42, at the Castro Theatre Sunday June 17 at 6:45 p.m.