Review: 1985 Brings Classic Queer Cinema into the Modern Age

March 25, 2019

by Mitch Ziems

It’s Christmas, 1985. Ronald Reagan is in his second term as president. The spread of AIDS is reaching epidemic proportions. And a young, closeted gay man, Adrian Lester (Cory Michael Smith, Gotham), is returning home to Texas for the first time in three years to spend the holiday with his family.

Yen Tan’s 1985 is a simple yet deeply moving look at Adrian’s homecoming, and the complicated family dynamic that initially drove him to seek a new life in New York City. The lo-fi production, shot in black & white on 16mm, is reminiscent of 90s New Queer Cinema, but strong performances and a perspective informed by three decades of social change define it as a clear product of modern times.

From the moment Adrian’s flight lands, the tension is clear. His war veteran father, Dale (Michael Chiklis, The Shield), gruffly rejects any attempt at connection. Eileen (Virginia Madsen, Sideways), his mother, forcefully tries to inject some happiness into the reunion, but struggles. And his high school-aged brother, Andrew (Aidan Langford, Bosch), is growing alienated from his family as he finds he enjoys the theatre and listening to Madonna more than playing football. There are clues that the family know Adrian is gay, but nobody is willing to address them. Is it because of their conservative values? Fear of how other family members might react? Whatever the case, any attempt at honest discussion is akin to navigating a minefield.

The fundamentalist Christian family attend church

1985 takes its time exploring why Adrian would choose to return to such a repressive place as the family home, a place in which he so frequently resorts to lies and secret conversations in order to hide the truth, when he does. The challenge it poses is reflected in the cinematography of the mononymous HutcH, whose camera is frequently dislocated from the action. Even when Adrian is at his most comfortable, when hanging out with his long-time friend Carly (Jamie Chung, Big Hero 6), we watch the pair from a distance. It’s as if we’re worried about disturbing them at a time when he might finally feel vulnerable enough to reveal his true self.

When the framing does change, such as in the scene where Dale and Adrian share a beer for the first time, the shift is subtle, but impactful. It’s scenes like this, and another in which Eileen drops Adrian at the airport, that highlight what makes 1985 unique. Despite the unwillingness to address Adrian’s sexuality, or the many issues that keep the family from being honest with each other, there’s love in the Lester home. Tan understands the complexities at work here, and in bringing them to the screen he portrays an oft-overlooked challenge faced by the gay community. A challenge not defined by hate and prejudice, but a lack of communication.

1985 releases in Australian cinemas on April 25.

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