It’s become a reflex action nowadays to judge every film about America’s recent past as a comment on the present. Movies such as BlacKKKlansman or Vice make it easy to draw the connections. Others, such as 1985, by Malaysian-born director, Yen Tan, take a more oblique approach.
Shot in melancholy black-and-white, the scenario is small and intimate, but the title links the story to an historical moment. In 1985 Ronald Reagan had just begun a second term as President of the United States. Like today it was an era of militant conservatism, a heyday for the religious right. It’s laughable to remember how shocked everyone was when “a B-grade actor” took up residence in the White House, but compared to the present incumbent Reagan looks like a visionary leader.
This is certainly the way he is remembered by Wall Street, because it was under Reagan that America began to accumulate debt while executive salaries skyrocketed. He was less proactive when it came to dealing with the AIDS epidemic, which was cutting a swathe through the homosexual community – a visitation the Moral Majority saw as Divine retribution, a “gay plague”.
History records the Reagan administration’s reluctance to respond to the AIDS crisis even as casualties reached alarming levels. As long as it was viewed as a problem that only concerned “gays” it was hardly taken seriously as a public health issue. Reagan said he could not “condone” the gay lifestyle. He had been in office for almost seven years before he even said the word “AIDS” in public.
Part of the problem was the widespread public embarrassment about anything to do with homosexuality. Not only did it offend the Christian fundamentalists, it ran contrary to all those wholesome American family values that had been relentlessly mythologised in popular culture. It would take another two decades of activism before so-called gay issues could take their place in the public discourse.
It must still be traumatic for young men from small-town America to tell their parents about their sexual identities, but in 1985 it was a horror show. This is the dilemma that confronts Adrian Lester (Cory Michael Smith), when he returns from New York to spend Christmas with his family in Fort Worth, Texas. He hasn’t been home in three years, a time in which he has fully embraced a new life. He is returning now because he has contracted the virus and doesn’t think he’ll see another Christmas. There’s a lot he needs to get off his chest.
It’s the dark side of Home for the Holidays, but none of this is obvious when Adrian gets off the plane and is met by his father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), a taciturn, working-class man who once served in Vietnam. Sensitive, finely-chiselled and sophisticated, Adrian is everything his father is not. His demeanour and body language betray his distance from this lumbering brute in overalls. Smith’s performance, in this regard, is amazingly subtle. In real life the actor’s sexual orientation is unclear and much discussed.
The reliable Virginia Madsen plays Adrian’s mother, Eileen – a dedicated home-maker full of unconditional love for her family. Adrian Langford is his youthful teen brother, Andrew, who prefers the theatre to the football field. Whether it’s in the genes or the dynamics of the family, Andrew seems set to follow in his brother’s footsteps.
The only person Adrian wants to see in Fort Worth is Carly (Jamie Chung), his old girlfriend from high school. First he has to repair a few bridges, as he had abruptly terminated contact when he became embedded within the gay subculture. On the evening they get together she expects a sexual encounter but all he wants is a friend with whom he can speak openly and honestly. The date ends badly, as Adrian finds it impossible – at this stage – to tell the truth about himself.
The sense that something important remains unspoken envelops every conversation Adrian has with his father, his mother and his brother. As they say grace at table, attend church, and listen to religious broadcasts on the radio, he feels it is increasingly impossible to come clean. The pressure keeps building, along with Adrian’s distress. It takes a late-night conversation with his father – filmed with the same static camera one might find in a movie by Ozu – for him to realise that his big secret may not be so well concealed.
These days there are many people who live with HIV, but in 1985 it led almost inevitably to full-blown AIDS and an early death. This shadow of looming mortality accompanies Adrian through every scene, investing the film with a pervasive sadness. Yen Tan stresses the tragic dimension of the story, but also its ordinariness. It’s a tale of a boy and his family that could be played out in any American town, in 1985 or today. At a time when the United States is becoming more sharply divided, more nationalistic and intolerant, it reminds us that love should be a force that transcends both sexuality and religion.
Directed by Yen Tan
Written by Yen Tan & Hutch,
Starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis, Jamie Chung, Aidan Langford, Ryan Piers Williams
USA, rated M, 85 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 April, 2019