Yen Tan’s 1985 is a quiet, well-written, and fabulously performed picture that quietly blows a kiss toward a generation of LGBTQ fighters.
Last Monday, LGBTQ film nonprofit, QFest, and queer Houston magazine, Spectrum South, presented the final night of QFest’s annual queer film festival at Rice University’s Rice Cinema, screening the new film, 1985. Starring Corey Michael Smith of Gotham fame, 1985 was written and directed by filmmaker Yen Tan and is set in the titular year surrounding the loss of life to the HIV/AIDS crisis.
The film sported a wonderful screenplay, and found a way to depict HIV/AIDS in the ’80s in a way that will not only make a person’s eyes well up with tears, but plays on the idiosyncrasies that help LGBTQ people laugh throughout tragedy without playing on stereotypes and cliches. The film revels in the fact that the LGBTQ community has come a long way since the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS virus, but still has a long way to go when dealing it is perceived by those on the outside. This film was a real tear jerker through its entire length. Smith plays Adrian, a man who makes viewers feel for all people who are dealing and suffering from this, past and present. His emotional scenes of tearful breakdowns are just as moving and convincing as his off-the-cuff one-liners to his childhood friend, Carly (played by the incomparable Jamie Chung), and his little brother, Andrew (played by young actor Aidan Langford).
The film’s supporting cast, however, receives equal acclaim to that of its star billing. Witches of East End and Designated Survivor star, Virginia Madsen, stars as Adrian’s mother, Eileen, who — in spite of her seemingly conservative ways — continually drops nuggets of affection for her son to let him know of her open-mindedness and liberalism (even revealing she voted for Mondale over Reagan in the 1985 election). Though often subdued and timid — likely a product of her role as a housewife during the time — Madsen’s performs brims with the honest love of a mother looking to connect with her child on a level transcendent of sexual orientation. Even Michael Chiklis’s performance (the The Shield star who portrays Adrian’s male fragility-epitomizing father) cracks the egg shell of 1980s homophobia and ignorance by letting his son know — near tearfully — that he can always count on his father for anything, even after learning Adrian’s seemingly well-kept secret. The film would also be nothing without the aforementioned Chung, who breathes something unexpected into this story that viewers might not go in expecting from a film about a gay white male — the power of feminism and liberation for women of color. Chung’s Carly is an old girlfriend and longtime friend of Adrian’s who is doing her best to grapple with why he can’t love her. But upon understanding the truth, the character wastes no time in carrying the Adrian on her shoulders, putting aside her own insecurities and hurt feelings for the man dealing with his impending death. That role — however small in the scope of the story as a whole — could not have been played by an actress other than Chung. As she jokes about her Korean upbringing while doing stand-up, she exerts the sort of strength that comes only from years of torment and inner-demons not easily translated to an authentic seeming character.
But the real star of this film is reserved for none of the adults. Instead, the unsung hero of Adrian’s story and of the film as a production, is young actor Aidan Langford, whose character also is struggling with his identity and possibly his sexuality. No lines are delivered in this film with more conviction or honesty than those of Langford, nor are the scenes that really bear the soul to its audience. Langford’s childlike innocence, coupled with his innocuous upset with his brother he feels abandoned by are just as heart-wrenching as scenes dealing with the greater issues of HIV/AIDS. In fact, the part of the film that touched my heart most was when Aidan left his brother Andrew a recorded message on an eight-track because he knew that his brother one day would may go through the very same scrutiny of being judged because of his sexual orientation. And while the performances of all the actors in this montage are powerful, none are quite as visceral or real as Langford’s.
LGBTQ people have had many challenges, but still have so many more ahead such as the perception of AIDS to straight and cisgender people, equal rights, and fighting back the stereotypes of gender norms. I give this movie four stars and would recommend all to see this film. This film makes you think twice about how you treat people, simply because tomorrow is not something that is promised.