Intimate AIDS Drama '1985' Is Admirable and, At Times, Very Convincing

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New York City's struggle to cope with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s has been well documented in films such as "Longtime Companion," "The Normal Heart," and yes, even "Rent." NYC was affected by the illness more than any other American city, especially its gay community.


There was fear, hate, and hysteria and "1985," Crafted by Malaysian-born writer/director Yen Tan, has the intention of showing us how things have not changed all that much thirty years later. His story tackles themes that have resonated in the American consciousness for decades; those of identity, the struggles of coming out, secrets (due to fear of telling the truth), acceptance, intolerance, and the crisis of loving family who may not love you back for who you are.

Taking place during the 1980s' AIDS crisis in Reagan's America, "1985" has Cory Michael Smith ("Gotham") playing Adrian, a 30-something-year-old New York-based marketer who returns home to Fort Worth, Texas for Christmas after not having been home in three years. His tough-as-nails ex-vet dad, Dale (Michael Chiklis), and sweet-natured mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), are polar opposites in character and politics. Eileen even has the time to tell Adrian that she secretly voted Democrat during the 1984 election because she's "for equal rights." For all the smothering of affection Mom might give Adrian, Dad, sipping his, what seems to be hourly, can of beer around the house, has an aura of authority over his son, which Adrian seems to respect and adhere to. It's just the way things work down there.

Entering the picture is his much-younger, barely pubescent brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), who's still bitter about his older sibling mysteriously cancelling an invite to visit him in NYC. Andrew is reluctant to embrace Adrian, but as soon as the ice is broken and all is forgiven, the bond they share is unmistakable and resonates throughout the film. Whenever the bedroom door is closed, these two siblings share secrets and relate over their unadorned love for Madonna's latest album, the casette of which was burned by Eileen and Dale at the recommendation of the local town pastor.

Andrew's visit home comes with hidden secrets and the possible delivery of a tragic announcement to his parents. Not only is he gay, and has been, it seems, his entire life, but he is dying of AIDS. He even lost his boyfriend to the disease, which was the sixth funeral he'd had to attend the last year -- a shocking fact that would not be quite as surprising for anyone who lived through the city's struggle with the AIDS epidemic.

Cory Michael Smith's performance drives the honest emotions home in what is essentially a very slight film, what with its minimal running time and thin plotTan's screenplay is instead more concerned with the smallest of gestures, the teensiest of wordings, which can sometimes make the film feel a little too modest for its own good. Familiarity does tend to continuously come back in scenes, especially when the clich├ęs start to pile-up during the film's final few minutes and Tan decides to pull the heart-strings a bit too heavy-handedly.

Tan's film might not be autobiographical, but the writer-director of "Pit Stop," his last feature, knows a thing or two about growing up in small-town texas as a gay man and being surrounded by Bible Belt traditions. The openly gay Tan and his family immigrated to the United States at the age of 19 to Dallas, Texas.

Even though his film is set in 1985, things haven't drastically changed overnight. Tan tries to evoke the fact that despite this being a period-piece, and gay rights having drastically been bettered over the three plus decades since, the act of coming out to friends and family is still difficult and even sometimes troublingly met by loved ones. Reinforcing the period setting, Tan decides to shoot on 16mm black and white to evoke the small-town America of his Texas youth, where things were, and still are, seen in such plain terms; perhaps he is also suggesting that the colors have barely changed.

The movie has its key moments, and the performances steer the ship in the right direction, for the most part, especially when realism seeps through the conversations between father and son. Chiklis is fantastic in the archetype tough dad role. The lessons being taught in "1985" are admirable, the performances top-notch, and the filmmaking stellar. There's a heartfelt authenticity to this kind of simple and irresistibly likable filmmaking that is damn-near priceless to behold. [B/B+]