sat 24/08/2019

VOD: 1985 | reviews, news & interviews

VOD: 1985

VOD: 1985

Black-and-white style and emotional heft fuel restrained gay-themed family drama

Moment of rare release: Cory Michael Smith, as Adrian

Dallas writer-director Yen Tan has brought 1985 back to stylistic basics, and the resulting resolute lack of adornment enhances his film’s concentration on a story that achieves indisputably powerful, and notably reserved emotion. Independent cinema through and through, it’s economical in every sense and thrives on excellent all-round performances.

Tan’s drama of family relations, set at the moment when the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was gradually becoming clear to Middle America, takes us back three decades, and there’s a similar feel to the visual style that he and his cinematographer (and producer) HutcH have chosen. They filmed in black-and-white Super 16, which seems to amplify contrasts, heightening darkness and often draining light – there’s a certain graininess, too – that surely consciously plays with the idea of home movies.

Secrets (and half-lies) are never quite what they seem here 

Which is appropriate for this narrative, given that protagonist Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) is coming back to his Fort Worth, Texas home for Christmas after three years away in New York. He clearly took the first chance he had to get out of there and head for the big city, drawn by its freedoms of attitude and behaviour. The resulting separation has become much more than just geographic – even though it’s been a long absence, by any standards – and we sense that he’s moved on in every way from the suburban, Bible Belt world from which he started.

There’s certainly a tense distance with his father (Michael Chiklis), when he meets him at the airport, the older man’s down-to-earth quality a contrast to Adrian’s city style: he’s also clearly the stronger force for religion in the family, that security of belief an anchor in a life that, we learn later, included service in Vietnam. Mother Eileen (Virginia Madsen, giving a beautiful performance) compensates for any such paternal chill with an almost anxious affection, while younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), barely a teenager, clearly harbours resentment at how his elder sibling disappeared from his life. The only genuinely uncomplicated reunion awaiting Adrian is with the family’s big old German Shepherd. 

The reticence here isn’t only because Adrian hasn’t come out to his parents, which makes for uneasy questions about his New York roommates, as well as a re-encounter with a past girlfriend (Jamie Chung) that reaches through the pain and awkwardness to achieve some welcome catharsis. There’s an anxiety about his health, too, with his mother’s concerns about how he’s lost weight, and the stomach flu that is wearing him down: Tan’s story certainly takes its time with its reveals, and his very chaste film gives a glimpse of Adrian's other world only in a brief final moment.1985But though a thread of tragedy spins itself through 1985, there’s also a lot of warmth, as well as some lovely humour, to balance that, and a sense that returning home to a world that you have left behind inevitably brings its incongruities. One scene has a high-school contemporary of Adrian’s apologising for how he’d treated him in the past: it’s both agonisingly awkward and redeemingly well-intentioned. This is certainly no return visit of accusation or a demand for recompense; instead there’s a strong sense of paradoxical love, heightened by a sense that it’s in all probability the last time.

The humour works particularly well within the family framework. A shared love of Madonna has Adrian rebonding with his brother, whose cassette collection has been purged on the instructions of the local pastor, as does his sense that the boy is growing up no less of an outsider than he has become himself. There’s a marvellous scene of bonding with his mother, which has her revealing her own dark secret – for these parts, at least: that she hadn’t voted for Reagan in the ‘84 elections. But secrets (and half-lies) are never quite what they seem here, something Tan hauntingly foregrounds in late revelations. They are all the more powerful for being made practically sotto voce, creating a sense of almost unbearablly fragile tenderness.

Tan developed 1985 from the short film of the same name that he made two years ago, which comes as an extra on the forthcoming DVD/Blu-ray dual format release, together with an audio commentary from the director Yen Tan and his DP HutcH.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for 1985

Though a thread of tragedy increasingly spins itself through '1985', there’s also a lot of warmth, as well as some lovely humour


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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