Watching 1985, the first year of Ronald Reagan’s second term disassembling the federal government, I remembered that my uncle Lelio, who changed his name to Andrew but whom we knew as Tata, joined the Army as a grunt and was sent to Korea, a move kicking off a cycle of peripatetic travel during which he contracted the HIV virus whose complications killed him a decade later. What motivated him remains a mystery. I suspect that he wanted out of a home that didn’t want him. Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), returning to Ft. Worth for Christmas, deals in a sense with a more frustrating scenario: his parents love him but don’t understand him. Shot in digitally projected Super 16 millimeter, 1985 plays like a sophisticated home movie found in your dad’s basement. Every time writer-director Yen Tan’s elegy presents a scene the audience may have seen before, he finds a way to shoot it fresh or has his actors wring unexpected notes. It’s an impressive debut.
Using the reticence of his characters as method keeps the suspense amped up too. There are few clanging expository passages; Tan doles out the information with patience. We’re not told that Adrian’s dad Dale (Michael Chiklis) is religious; we learn it from his choice of talk radio station. Gradually we learn that Adrian hasn’t seen his family in three years since moving to New York City to get a job in advertising – and to escape. Kid brother Andrew (an impressive Aiden Langford) is still pissed that Adrian nixed his trip to see because he was too busy. Their mom Eileen (Virginia Madsen) projects the mild enthusiasm of a person accustomed to making do, of being surrounded by supplicants. She brightens only when Carly (Jamie Chung) comes up. We’re not told she’s Adrian’s high school girlfriend; Tan shows us later, proof of a natural filmmaker.
Between the three of them, as cinematographer Hutch’s camera observes them around the tale, shimmers the sense of things unsaid; each person, even the grade school-aged Andrew, keeps what they know or suspect about Adrian to him or herself. In one of 1985‘s most excruciating scenes, Dale winces in shame and resentment when Adrian hands out several Christmas presents that Dale can never afford: a Sound Warehouse gift certificate and new Walkman for Andrew (“with Dolby sound!”), a cashmere accessory for Eileen, a jacket for Dale, and round trip tickets to Hawaii. Each gift lands like a cold fish on the floor; Eileen worries for Dale’s sake, while Andrew knows he can’t play the tapes Dale will likely confiscate, 1985, of course, being the year the Parents Music Resource Center became a brief scourge. Meanwhile, why won’t Adrian allow anyone to see him shirtless?
An actor whose long face has more bones than skin, Cory Michael Smith of Gotham is well cast as a young man who, like hundreds of thousands during the peak plague years, has lived amid lengthening shadows. The rapport between Andrew and the older brother he barely knows deepens when Adrian learns they both love Madonna. That’s the limit of his pop ecumenicism, though: Adrian takes him record shopping for R.E.M. and The Smiths. There’a sense in which Andrew — embarrassed by his acne, harassed by Dale for not giving a damn about sports like Adrian — is also gay, and Adrian has picked up on it, but it’s typical of 1985‘s subtlety that nothing gets spelled out.
A time bomb waiting for a lighter, Adrian reaches a crisis point when he agrees to meet Carly in Dallas at the night club where she does her stand-up routine. What follows is a night at a new wave bar — to my eyes a poignant recreation of the era’s chintz, when no doubt it was called a “disco” until 1983 — and chugging gin and tonics and Ecstasy, the latter the newest thing in Dallas. Another director might have staged this evening as Adrian’s long-deferred moment of euphoria – he’s out of his domestic entombment, dancing! But it isn’t until later, in a lovely moment under a bridge where local teens have no doubt shared thousands of secrets, when Adrian explains the stakes to Cheryl. The Korean-American actress Jamie Chung modulates frustrated love and pathos with skill; she’s tough but life in Dallas-Fort Worth hasn’t taught her how to deal with a gay ex-boyfriend. In that river scene she alternates puffs on a cigarette with looking away from Adrian; Tan keeps the couple sitting side by side in medium shot (the fact that she’s of Asian ancestry doesn’t faze Eileen, an example of those unspoken and unexpected bits of liberalism that all parents carry in their DNA).
Audiences might be surprised by how quietly and cumulatively 1985 earns its emotions. A backyard conversation over beers between Dale and Adrian is a case in point. A Vietnam War vet and survivor of a home where, he says, his parents never said, “I love you,” Dale himself can’t express anything but a gnarled affection, and even this is put to the test when he reveals what he learns about his son during an impromptu trip to NYC. Tan doesn’t let old pro Chiklis off the hook with a close-up either. As for Madsen, she wears woundedness well until her own last moment with Smith, rewarding Adrian with a smile that flabbergasts him.
With his customary restraint, Tan doesn’t show what happens after Adrian returns to his big city squalor. Also released in 2018 was Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a novel depicting the devastation wrought by AIDS in Boystown, Chicago at the same time a finger cut while slicing onions sends Adrian into a frenzy. As the generation that survived the plague drifts – gratefully, ruefully – into their fifties and sixties, it matters that artists record these fragments of living history. To acknowledge that HIV infection no longer guarantees death and to suppose that an Andrew and an Adrian in 2019 would have an easier time of it with their parents does little to mitigate the pain of being different at the point in our lives when shared experiences should, theoretically, bring us closer to our relatives. Sober, almost ruthless, 1985 shows how the art of losing, for many of us, is hard to master.
1985 is available on Amazon Movies.