André and Debbie sat a few rows away from one another in a cinema watching 1985, the debut film of Yen Tan ― equally absorbed in its grainy, lo-fi humanism. When they met up at the end of the screening, they turned to each other and said: wait, I thought you were reviewing this? So here we present two takes on 1985.
There are few surprises in Yen Tan’s modestly poignant 1985, a narrative feature that follows a man’s return to his conservative Texas hometown. Though what slowly emerges out of this moving black-and-white familial drama is an empathetic framing of small, lovely moments of connection against the swallowing inevitability felt at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
The last time Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) was home was in 1982. Now, it’s the Christmas of the titular year, and he’s arrived for a family reunion with his parents and younger brother, Aidan (Andrew Lester), expected to be as jolly as the sickly jingles playing through the airport. But the grainy black-and-white Super 16mm aesthetic immediately casts a shadow over his Texas home: it’s a place suspended in a past, captured by the film’s gorgeously photographic, textured feel. Here, the local church preaches itself as the “foundation of truth”, and sermons hail religious music as a substitute for the provocative Madonna lyrics pumping through Aidan’s headphones.
After three years of absence, Adrian’s return home isn’t a mere courtesy visit – it wavers with the uncertain ramifications of what lies behind the disclosure of his AIDS diagnosis. The reveal of his illness is intrinsic to the reveal of his sexuality, which he’s shielded away from his parents – his hardened, tough on-the-face father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), and affectionate mother, Eileen (an endearing Virginia Marsden). Adrian’s memories in New York City, which we see in intermittent flash-backs, seem a world away from this small tight-knit regional town. There, disco lights flash in the club, and there’s a true sense of unabashed freedom and expression, where love is non-judgemental, unconditional. Here, in his hometown, Adrian’s secret hangs over him, unspoken and sometimes deliberately unacknowledged; his grief over his friends’ fatal ends eating at him as much as his own disease. In his family’s presence, there’s only small actions and throwaway lines to clue us into his illness: he’s skinnier than the last time he was home; he has bouts of nausea; he splurges on elaborate gifts for his family on Christmas (a heartbreaking scene that’s responded to with floundering, albeit grateful reactions).
Tan directs this indie with open arms, but also grants it careful restraint: his is an honest, warm approach that both embraces 1985’s theatrical tone (often framed through static shots with faces centred on the camera) and envelops itself in a small-scale tenderness, every beat positioned to make Adrian’s pain more devastating. Where it might be easy to slip into stereotypical ‘conservative’ archetypes and milk this seemingly straightforward story dry, Tan and co-writer Huch Muselessmime instead feeds us dramatic tension through characters that are as unpredictable and complicated as real, breathing humans. Keeping the film’s locations within the small perimeter of the town and the family home, Tan allows room for more delicate, softer moments, such as in Adrian’s interactions with his parents; Adrian’s conversations with Aidan about his changing adolescence; and reconnecting with his childhood best friend, Carly (Jamie Chung) – an aspiring stand-up comedian who’s both a source of agony and comfort. These are people Adrian left behind to find his most true self, and now he’s picking up the pieces of hurt he scattered in his absence; interactions with his friends and family feel individually underpinned with a love that’s jointly linked, both spoken and wordless.
While at times the film’s theatricality, delivered through slightly heavy-handed dialogue and limited camera movements, can lend it a stilted tone, these moments are easily forgiven amongst the texture of the film’s understated atmosphere. And 1985’s strength lies in the decision to keep its storytelling on a no-fuss, intimate scale; how it humbly pairs a desire for normalcy against a larger moment in history, with consequences that bleed into the personal. The fear of reaction to Adrian’s illness is equally weighted with the fear of its looming, more tragic symptoms: the confusion, the wracking anxiety, the wish to make amends, to make up for lost time. Tan’s natural ease in maintaining that emotional balance cements him as a director to watch; he winds back the clock to touchingly remind us of the time period’s shattering reverberations, while never forgetting the very people that sat right at the centre of it.
1985 follows a secret, because it knows the best cinema is secretive. It poses questions too: like, can nostalgia porn be more than classical brainwashing, or parody? Can it be more than just moving? When a real life grown man comes home to Texas in a peak cultural moment (whatever that actually means), what will his family think of him? What about the old friends he bumps into? Why does his suspicious Madonna stan brother feel a strong kinship with his older sibling? Why does he get him, and not the tradie farmer?
Texas in 1985 is a place where what you watch, how you speak, and what you wear isn’t an immediate definer; secrets can be secrets, sans any internet search history used against you. No Burn Book to oust, no Creek’s secret to scroll through, no coming-out tutorial for anyone. In 1985, Texas is a black-and-white spirit of a past entrenched in tragedy. The place feels as far from the Baltimore queer scene as a gay kid growing up in Perth dreaming of Sydney, or that party where ‘Finally’ is playing – scratch that, ‘Finally’ came out in 1992, but Satdee Night showed a Sydney 70s that had more freedom of love than the nose pick that was Texas.
The photography of 1985 plays like a black-and-white crusty ghost of all-or-any current FX TV content serious about AIDS. The good intentions of Ryan Murphy are matched by first time feature film director Yen Tan, who actually creates his own unique craft of passion, instead of an explosive theatre of historical showmanship. If Ryan Murphy is the Baz Luhrmann of AIDS drama, then Yen Tan is the slick Andrea Arnold of gayboy drama.
In a world where no filmmaker needs film stock, where each time it’s a characteristic ‘thing’ to show, 1985 feels humble. It’s rare for a film to be so casually in black-and-white. 1985 doesn’t nip slip it’s classicism; it uses it to ground itself in a past that was not only classical, but restrictive. Without being a tool with specs, there is no obvious reason to shoot on film other than the love of a kind of cinema playing into tradition, but 1985 uses black and white cause it’s a diary entry– not just another overtly mediated way of seeing the past .
This isn’t the only way into this film, best enjoyed with as little intel as possible. Cinema spelt backwards is secrets – hence why every good film should feel like someone’s hot goss waiting to pop. In 85 minutes the film sensitizes us to feelings of withholding truth ― its energy, exhaustion, and ultimately pain. The film feels like the result of the only way to express itself. It is, in a word, alone.
Praise all who see 1985 with the luck of no context – hard to expect this film be viewed this way. Treat 1985 like the diary we break open, after which you can return to every period film about AIDS that Hollywood imposes on us to remind audiences who can actually handle a cry. 1985 suggests that sensitive cinema isn’t a noisy tear jerk, but a gentle whisper of a secret we all suspect but never had the guts to ask.
1985 is now showing in select Australia cinemas.
André Shannon is a Sydney-based queer filmmaker and film critic. Previous work includes being Cate Shortland’s nanny, an e-mail to Mark Cousins, and published criticism across publications and film festival platforms. André co-hosts podcasts at FBi 94.5 and his Twitter is @andreshannonfr.
Debbie Zhou is an arts writer/critic and managing editor of Rough Cut. She’s just a bit obsessed with movies and the theatre, and she will always get behind a good film score. Her words also appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal and more. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou