Since moving to New York after high school, Adrian (Smith) has done his best to stay away from the Dallas suburb he grew up in. That makes coming home for Christmas for the first time in years a bit of an adjustment. His mother (Madsen) is overjoyed at his return but determined to see him pick up his old life; his father (Chiklis) still struggles to see things outside his own religious beliefs and traditional upbringing. But buried beneath Adrian’s calm exterior is a world of grief and confusion, and spending time with his loved ones – no matter how much they may struggle to understand each other – may be more important now than ever before.
What makes 1985 such a heartbreaking film is its refusal to contextualize Adrian’s suffering against the ongoing AIDS epidemic. The film never names the disease, only identifies its symptoms; in a candid moment with his high school girlfriend (Chung), Adrian admits that he has been to six funerals in the past year and is barely holding himself together. With no inkling of the future AIDS activists would one day fight to save, 1985 becomes the story of one man looking to shield his family from the worst parts of his inevitable death. The hyperlocalized nature of this tragedy gives this somewhat familiar story a razor-sharp edge.
Austin writer/director Yen Tan’s decision to shoot 1985 entirely on 16 mm may make the film feel like a lost home video, but there’s an element of unevenness to the movie that adds to its authenticity. Dialogue between characters often comes across as stilted; these are the rote responses of a family who no longer knows how to communicate with each other but is unwilling to admit that anything is wrong. As good as Smith is in the lead role, it’s Madsen as his devout Christian mother who shows the depth hidden beneath these exchanges. She knows there is a truth Adrian keeps hidden from her, and she does her best – within the boundaries of her conservative lifestyle – to offer him a few words of comfort. The thought of how the family will look back on these small moments is one of the pieces of 1985 you’ll carry with you long after the film is done.
For an interview with Yen Tan, read "A Different Spirit of Christmas," March 9.
Copyright © 2019 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.