Cory Michael Smith in "1985"

SXSW ’18 Review: A Disease May Ravage the Body But Can’t Touch the Soul of Yen Tan’s Riveting “1985”

When Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) comes into focus in the opening moments of Yen Tan’s “1985,” he still isn’t all there, something that becomes readily apparent when he’s picked up by his father Dale (Michael Chiklis) at the airport. He hasn’t been back to Texas in three years, having fled for New York long ago, only returning for holidays, if that and blaming work for ignoring his parents’ calls or that time when his younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), who appears to be itching to follow in his footsteps out of town, had planned to visit him in the big city. He’s essentially a ghost, the irony being that he’s more visible to his family than to himself since he’s been diagnosed with HIV.

A “stomach flu” is to blame for his weight loss, you hear from Adrian’s father, but not ever from Adrian, indicative of the fact that what you don’t see or hear in “1985” carries the most weight. The words “gay” or “AIDS” are never spoken because they can’t be in Adrian’s religious home and as Adrian puts on the facade that he’s leading a successful life in New York at a cushy ad agency job, the reality seeps in that he’s attended far too many funerals for a man in his twenties and the fact he’s likely going to die soon himself has forced him into a hometown visit that essentially is to say farewell. However, he isn’t alone in his quiet desperation, with Dale, a Vietnam vet who doesn’t know how to talk to either Adrian or Andrew, now that the latter has traded in football for drama club, and his mom (a radiant Virginia Madsen) sneaking into Adrian’s room at night while he’s away, ostensibly to get away from his snoring, but you suspect other factors are at play.

The discontent amongst all of Adrian’s family, as well as Carly (Jamie Chung), a friend from high school who has since moved out of the suburbs herself, is notable because of how Tan uses each of the pieces they feel are missing to find the places where they connect, either in a feeling of shared emptiness or the delightful recognition of the person they knew in happier, simpler times, that make “1985” so devastating. Like Tan’s previous feature “Pit Stop,” the film builds subtly but steadily, with its considerable might being exposed in closeups, with the full force of the performances of an exquisite cast drawn out by the stark black-and-white cinematography of Tan’s longtime collaborator HutcH and only placing choice bits of score – yet a fair bit of overbearing Christmas music to naturally reflect Adrian’s anxiety makes it in – to let the film sit largely in silence. (Curiously, the film is both a stylistic and narrative break from the short the writer/director made in 2016 which bears the same name, though it shares a feeling of the unease of the unknown and a grace that are distinct.)

Before you know it, “1985” comes and goes, spanning just a few mostly uneventful days while Andrew is home for Christmas, yet it sticks around far longer in the mind, for, one suspects, the characters onscreen and certainly the audience, with the strong impression being made all the more resonant with the knowledge that an entire generation of gay men essentially disappeared with the arrival of the HIV virus. On that score, Tan turns a year of tragedy into triumph.

“1985” is opening on October 26th in New York at the Quad Cinema and Los Angeles at the Laemmle Glendale.

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