Prepare to break out the handkerchiefs several times during writer-director Yen Tan’s “1985,” a deeply emotional tearjerker and family story set in a year when an HIV diagnosis was effectively a death sentence. This is a realistic, discreet, yet exploratory film that earns its tears honestly and scrupulously.
Gay, closeted, and HIV-positive Adrian (Cory Michael Smith, “Gotham”) comes home to Texas for Christmas for what he knows will probably be the last time. Tan’s camera keeps a polite and empathetic distance from Adrian and his parents Dale (Michael Chiklis) and Eileen (Virginia Madsen), both of whom are very religious, and his little brother Andrew (Aidan Langford, “Bosch”).
The set-up of this story admittedly doesn’t sound too promising, and the very grainy black-and-white cinematography might be a problem for some viewers, but “1985” is a film that is full of virtues, not least the acting talent of its cast, who are all expert at conveying a lot of subtext underneath words and physical behavior. It seems clear that Tan (“Pit Stop”) has worked with his actors very closely and sensitively, and he has won deeply felt work from them.
Smith has the kind of very severe male beauty and moral gravity that distinguished the leading men in Jacques Demy’s movies from the 1960s. He has the ability to suggest profound levels of decency and despair while also somehow never losing an astringent quality that keeps some of the sadder scenes from getting out of control; this is a crucial skill because there are so many brutally sad scenes in this movie, many of them allowed to play out in what feels like real time.
The actors in “1985” expertly shape their behavior while working in a very patiently naturalistic vein, and Tan’s gentle style with the camera matches them. He uses a lot of low angles to make you feel as trapped as Smith’s character Adrian is at home, and he even makes subtle adjustments to the sound design sometimes so that we really can feel how Adrian has to detach himself from some family interactions, particularly at the dinner table.
Adrian’s young brother Andrew is having trouble because he is also gay but he is unable to “pass” as well as Adrian did. Chiklis’s Dale worries that Andrew is coming off as too soft for their world; this film takes place in a time and milieu where ministers come to people’s houses in order to burn their sinful records.
Smith is at his best in scenes with Langford’s Andrew because he gets to mentor his little brother a little, and this is at first a relief and finally a kind of torture because Adrian knows that he has limited time to do so, and he is worried about that. This situation and relationship finally begins to feel like a potent symbol for the loss of so many people like Adrian in the 1980s and 1990s, and the subsequent loss for gay kids like Andrew who missed out on all the advice and encouragement they might have gotten from that lost generation.
“1985” is filled with rich and unexpected scenes, such as the interaction that Adrian has outside a grocery store with a former bully named Marc (Ryan Piers Williams) who insists on giving him a free pie to make up for the past. There is nothing conventional about the beats of this scene, or any of the other scenes in this movie. We don’t know what to expect, and we finally don’t know what to feel, and it’s always a relief when a film allows us to figure that out for ourselves.
A particular triumph here is Tan’s handling of Adrian’s former girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung, “The Gifted”), a magnetic young Korean-American girl who is an aspiring stand-up comic. The role of the rejected female in stories like this has generally been a thankless one, but Carly is a vibrant and necessary addition to the film.
In the very painful scene where Carly expresses her anger toward Adrian, who is in absolute agony having to hear what she says, Tan doesn’t make it easy for anyone — he lets this scene play out as punishingly as it would in life. But in a later scene where Adrian confides in Carly, Tan offers us the pleasures of intercut close-ups of the two of them that linger on Carly’s deeply likable and attractive attempts to stop crying and resume her “tough chick” attitude by taking drags on her cigarette. She’s trying to be tough for herself here, yes, but also for her friend and former lover Adrian.
At the end, it is Madsen who comes to the rescue in “1985” when the pain involved in this story begins to seem too much to bear. She has a close-up here where she chooses to have Eileen smile at her son rather than break down and weep, and this is a perfect choice from Madsen because Adrian needs this smile just as much as the movie itself does. Madsen has done very soulful work whenever she has had the opportunity, but she has rarely been as fine as in this scene where her character radiates heartbroken maternal love and hard-won acceptance.
“1985” is very tough to watch sometimes, but it’s not depressing: it very believably dramatizes the kind of grace under pressure that can make any of us heroic when we are backed against the wall by life.