Shot on Super 16mm film in black and white, Yen Tan’s 1985 is an intensely felt, claustrophobic and deeply moving portrait of one young man’s closeted life in Reagan-era America. Drawing finely calibrated performances from his leads and deploying an almost desperately restrained filmmaking style, a gentle sadness radiates throughout Tan’s film.
Set in the dwindling days of 1985, Cory Michael Smith (TV’s Gotham) stars as Adrian, a closeted advertising executive returning from New York City to his hometown for the first time in a while. As his prickly father Dale (Michael Chiklis) says with almost bitter resignation: “You left home just as soon as you could. You couldn’t have left any faster.”
He’s back for Christmas, and spends his time reconnecting with his younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), his loving mother Eileen (Virginia Madsen, in a standout performance) and his estranged childhood friend Carly (Jamie Chung).
Adrian hasn’t told his extremely religious family that he’s gay or that he has recently been diagnosed with AIDS. Tan deliberately sprinkles telling details into the film’s dialogue and initial setting to establish this dynamic: Dale’s truck has a Bush/Reagan bumper sticker, for example, while Adrian explains away his thin physique as the result of a nasty stomach bug.
Tan also judiciously deploys small references to suggest that Adrian’s younger brother Andrew might also be gay. Andrew has a fondness for Madonna’s music, and he has dropped sport for theatre, much to his dad’s dismay. When the two brothers go to the movies they watch A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 – regarded by many to be one of the gayest horror films ever made.
These small details are more than just nice examples of economic storytelling. They’re key to the film’s cumulative emotional impact, serving as small-but-powerful cultural signifiers for Andrew, an alienated kid deep in the suburbs, to latch onto.
Elsewhere, the dialogue veers into more didactic territory. A moment when Dale recounts his experience as a Vietnam vet risks sounding less like conversation and more like a didactic checklist of his grievances. It’s a strange departure from the rest of the film’s dialogue, and yet it also throws Adrian’s painful situation into stark relief. In this household, the luxury to turn subtext into text is not something that’s afforded to those living in the closet.
Tan wields his beautifully grainy black-and-white cinematography to claustrophobic, even stifling, effect. For much of the film’s running time he keeps the camera tightly focused on his actors, and his actors tightly confined to their modest suburban home. It also helps amplify the frustration Adrian must feel at his seeming inability to confront his parents with the reality of who he is.
Towards the end of 1985 we are treated to a few glimpses of Adrian’s freer life in New York City. They may be brief but, such is the cumulative power of this portrait of the closet, this explosion of authenticity feels almost euphoric. Underscoring these vignettes is an impassioned monologue, delivered by Adrian in the form of a tape he records for his younger brother. It’s the crux of this exceptionally shot and acted drama, and the most emotionally resonant moment I’ve experienced at the cinema in a long time.