Yen Tan’s “1985” is a quiet, unassuming coming-out story, set at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It would have been called groundbreaking had it been made in the titular year, but in 2018 it comes across like a throwback to an earlier time, and not an especially compelling one.
The central character is Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), a twenty-something guy who returns to small-town Texas from New York City, where he decamped years earlier, to spend Christmas with his parents Dale (Michael Chiklis) and Eileen (Virginia Madsen) and younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford). The atmosphere is tense: Eileen is hugely welcoming, but Dale is gruff and distant, and Andrew is going through a rough adolescent patch in which classmates are taunting him for his acne and his musical interests, which tend to show tunes (something Dale is also concerned with).
It’s fairly clear from the get-go where the script by Tan and Leslie Hutchinson (billed simply as “HutcH”) is headed, and it certainly doesn’t veer from the predicted route. Adrian presents his family with expensive gifts and talks about his promotion at the ad agency where he’s been working, but his manner suggests it’s all a pose; and the truth comes out when he visits his erstwhile girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung) in Dallas, where she’s begun a career as a stand-up comic. Before long we know the reality of Adrian’s life in New York, and about his likely future.
One can admire “1985” for its good intentions: Adrian’s final gesture of leaving a note behind for Andrew, encouraging him to be himself and assuring him that things will get better, serves essentially as a time-capsule message to young people of today who might be struggling with their sexual identity, and is certainly a positive conclusion to a poignant, mostly sad story.
And yet much of the film feels strangely stiff, not quite authentic. Part of that results from the fact that the performances never dig very deep into the characters. It isn’t that no one attempts an accent, although all of these people are supposed to be native Texans. That’s just window-dressing. The problem is more fundamental. Smith offers such an exercise in rigid self-control that Adrian comes across less as a person than a symbol, and Langford is rather amateurish. And while Madsen offers a fulsome turn as a mother who would be a helicopter mom if she had one, Chiklis’ emotional harshness is laid on with trowel, though the final heart-to-heart Dale has with Adrian, though dramatically rather clumsy, is well-played.
There’s clumsiness elsewhere, too. The persistent intrusion of religious harangues is heavy-handed, as is a curious scene in which an old high-school classmate tries awkwardly to make amends to Adrian about his nastiness toward him back in the day. That episode is resurrected in Adrian’s conversation with Carly, which is for the most part engaging (Chung is quite good), but also turns a bit ham-fistedly to point-making about the concerns of the era. Technically the picture is clearly a low-budget affair, with HutcH’s black-and-white cinematography strictly utilitarian and the editing by him and Tan equally so.
“1985” is clearly a labor of love, but it makes less of an impact that, given its theme, one might have expected. It does, happily, avoid crude melodramatics, but doesn’t manage to invest its more subdued treatment of a potent subject with the emotional resonance it might have generated.