‘1985’ reviewed

❉ Is Yen Tan’s award-winning film just another gay coming out movie? Check out Nick Myles’ review.

“While the general direction of travel in modern civilisations is towards inclusivity and acceptance, it remains a fact that the process of coming to terms with an alternative sexuality, and then expressing that publicly is still a challenge for most. So we do need to keep telling our stories in order to support and encourage those in need of reassurance.”

A closeted young gay man returns to his small-minded religious hometown with a heavy burden on his soul… We’ve had a hundred and one coming out films already, so what’s new about this one?

The answer provided by Yen Tan’s film is: It’s in black and white. Unfortunately, this begs a second question: Why? The ’80s surely aren’t so long ago that they merit being treated as monochrome history? Moreover, 1985 isn’t lit with much regard for the poetic potential of black and white cinema: exterior scenes look washed out, while inside shots are uniformly gloomy. The latter may quite suit protagonist Adrian’s (Cory Michael Smith – Gotham, First Man, Carol) many moments of brooding into the middle distance, but it feels like a misguided stylistic decision.

The plot has Adrian returning home for Christmas, having fled to the bright gay lights of New York City three years before. He’s just recovered from a bout of “stomach flu”, but it’s not long before we see him secretly taking mysterious pills. (Stop reading now if you don’t want the dramatic premise of a gay film set in the ’80s spoiled for you) Adrian is ecstatic to be reunited with the family dog, but struggles with grunting Dad (Michael Chiklis – Fantastic Four, American Horror Story, Gotham), good cook Mom (Virginia Madsen – Sideways) and grumpy teenage brother Andrew (Aidan Langford).

In many ways, Andrew is the character who unknowingly provides 1985 with its most interesting dimension. Young Andrew is causing much concern for his parents – particularly man’s man Dad – what with giving up sport, taking up drama, listening to Madonna and putting a poster of Bryan Adams on his bedroom wall. Dad wins a small victory for Team Macho by forcing Andrew to work on his arm wrestling skills, but Adrian spots a kindred spirit at once. Andrew doesn’t seem to have any inkling of his sexuality, but Adrian takes it upon himself to encourage his little bro’s box-ticking of gay stereotypes. Sadly the film screening of A Chorus Line the brothers try to attend is sold out. Thankfully, Adrian stops short of taking Andrew to a sauna instead.

On Christmas Day, the family discover that Adrian has been spectacularly generous with his presents. This is fine by Andrew (selfish teenager – tsk!) but horrifies Mom and Dad. Dad receives a nice leather jacket with an expression that seems to imply it might be fashioned from the very pelt of Satan himself, while astonished Mom can barely pronounce the word c-c-c-cashmere. Could Adrian be burning up his credit cards before cashing out with the Gay Plague? (Sorry – Spoilers!)

Another question the film raises: Is 1985 really a coming out story at all? I don’t think the word “gay” is spoken once, and the only person Adrian reveals his sexuality to (off-camera) is ex-girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung – Gotham, The Gifted). An hour into the film, Dad reveals that he knows already, and by the end Mom has somehow guessed. Adrian’s sweet parting message to Andrew is all vague “be yourself even if people hate you” and crucially lacks what would surely be the key message: for God’s sake use a condom!

Maybe Adrian never intended to be honest with his family, merely to see them one last time, but if so it’s a curious strategy, and how are we meant to take a bizarre scene near the end in which Adrian tells Dad he’s been “lost” and hopes to find his way back to the light with the aid of the new bible his folks gave him for Christmas?

I don’t want to pummel this film, because I presume it comes from a place of good intention. It contains a sprinkling of affecting moments and there are some nicely fluid camera moves. But the performances are underwhelming, and the script is so heavy handed I assumed it might be Tan’s debut film. However, it turns out he’s got several credits to his name, and some prizes too – including for this film the Grand Jury Prize at the Dallas International Film Festival, no less.

While the general direction of travel in modern civilisations – with obvious exceptions – is towards inclusivity and acceptance, it remains a fact that in a heteronormative world the process of coming to terms with an alternative sexuality, and then expressing that publicly and to our nearest and dearest is still a challenge for most. So we do need to keep telling our stories in order to support and encourage those in need of reassurance. But when we do, we have a responsibility to tell them in an artistically valid way. My Night with Reg, The Normal Heart, Angels in America… The list of iconic dramas about the 1980s AIDS crisis is long. Well meant as it is, 1985 will not be joining the ranks of those works. I feel compassion for Adrian and Andrew, and for their parents, but I don’t feel the author of their story has made a significant contribution to the genre.

❉ ‘1985’, directed by Yen Tan and starring Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chilkis, Jamie Chung, is released by Reccadillo Pictures on dual format edition (DVD and Blu-ray) on 28th January.

❉  Nick Myles is a London-based writer and director. His stage plays have been produced at numerous London theatres, and at both the Edinburgh and Brighton Fringe Festivals. He has also contributed to Big Finish’s range of Dark Shadows audio plays. Twitter: Nick Myles

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