Based on his short film of the same name, Yen Tan’s “1985” follows Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) as he visits home in Fort Worth, Texas after moving to New York and not returning for three years. Adrian is gay but closeted to his deeply religious family. His return is prompted by his desire to make amends and reconcile with his past, as he has been recently diagnosed with AIDS. Tension builds between him and his family as news of his diagnosis looms overhead.
From the moment this film starts, the strained relationship between Adrian and his family is evident. When arriving at the airport his father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), is very rigid and offset by his son’s presence. When arriving at the house his mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), is overly affectionate to the point of desperation. Both parents are on opposite ends of an emotional spectrum. It highlights a stark difference between how each one copes with their son’s homecoming. Although shunned at first for abandoning his younger brother, Adrian is able to reconnect with Andrew (Aidan Langford), over their shared love of Madonna. The scenes between the brothers are poignant, and the connection between the two is well developed and strong. Yet, the tension doesn’t go away — it haunts the family, and it holds them back from confronting secrets and long-brewing distress.
Another apparent characteristic is the hold religion has on this small town. When talking about the music they like, Andrew says that their pastor went to a neighbor’s house the other day and burned all his records for being too secular. Other disturbing moments include vitriolic radio talk shows and muted scenes of angry preachers — the latter having an element of sensory deprivation that disorients the audience. These glimpses into the power the church has over the townspeople help show the audience why Adrian was so keen to leave the first moment he could, and why coming back makes him feel so suffocated and trapped.
The most hard-hitting moments come from the moments of silence. When the noise around Adrian is muted, the audience can see the internal struggle Adrian endures as he tries to keep himself together. The other moments of silence come in conversations where extended pauses, especially between Adrian and his mother mother, deafen the audience and expresses an unspeakable desire from both to be honest with one another. Although the script is superbly written, it is the moments without words that pack the hardest punch.
The movie is shot in black and white on 16mm Kodak film, which adds an interesting texture to the cinematography. Many scenes have a touching, photographic quality. In one scene where Adrian talks with his mother alone in his room, his eyes are entirely shadowed while her face is fully lit. This choice of lighting makes for an excellent way to show the internal workings of both characters. Eileen desperately tries to reconnect with her son by making small talk and radiates a desperate optimism. Meanwhile Adrian, while listening to his mother, is overshadowed by the secret that he is unable to tell and thus bars himself from a connection.
Cory Michael Smith gives a subtly beautiful performance that is incredibly moving. The pain he shows in his moments alone and away from his family is so deeply felt that it can be hard to watch at times. The understated desolation he has in the scenes with the rest of the family help the audience see just how much everything is tearing him apart inside and how hard it is to keep it all together. Across the board, this film has stirring and noteworthy performances, but it is Smith’s solemn and affecting portrayal that stands out and takes hold of the audience throughout.
“1985” is an exquisite film that is both deeply emotional and powerful. Although subtle and quiet, it grips its audience from the start and doesn’t let go. Many lines and moments will stick with you when you leave, making you wonder what it would be like to live on borrowed time.
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