Gay fests are currently showing a restoration of the late Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s “Buddies,” a microbudgeted drama that arrived in 1985 as the first-ever narrative feature about the AIDS crisis, one resolutely from the viewpoint of the already hard-hit gay community. A few months later network TV waded in with the acclaimed “An Early Frost,” which like most early mainstream treatments of the subject took a perspective designed to soften up AIDS-phobic Middle America — that of “respectable” parents coming to terms with their sons’ homosexuality as well as probably terminal illnesses.
Bridging the two 30-odd years later is Yen Tan’s fine “1985,” which expands on ideas first explored in his short of the same name two years ago. This excellent drama presents an ’80s flashback perhaps even more uncomfortably familiar to many gay men who survived that era than the stricken Manhattan of “Buddies” or the upscale suburbia of “Frost.” Here, we get a scenario many of them witnessed at the time: returning from the big city whose freedom they’d fled to, paying a possible last visit after HIV diagnosis to small-town families either oblivious to or hostile toward their sexual identity. Shot in black-and-white Super 16, it’s a finely observed portrait of largely unarticulated tensions forced to the surface by the pressure of a “gay plague” then with scant hope of medical salvation.
The Malaysian-born, Dallas-based Tan, whose last feature was the equally incisive “Pit Stop” five years ago, makes use of name actors for the first time here. That, plus an already impressive pile of rave reviews, should help this film reach its deserved niche audience when Wolfe launches a theatrical release in late October.
Adrian (Cory Michael Smith of “Gotham”) hasn’t been home for three years, an absence he explains as the price of success — claiming he just keeps climbing the ladder at a prominent Madison Avenue advertising agency. But we soon guess that’s not exactly the truth, and that the expensive presents he’s brought for Christmas aren’t a reflection of prosperity but an attempt to hide his actual straits. He’s clearly ill at ease returning to the environs of his deeply Christian lower-middle-class family outside Fort Worth, where the only uncomplicated reunion he can look forward to is with the German shepherd.
Adrian is the humorless product of a punitively strict upbringing: Dad Dale (Michael Chiklis) is a grump who seems suspicious of Adrian’s every move, which extends to an insinuating disapproval of the young man’s two male NYC “roommates.” Mom Eileen (Virginia Madsen) offers a contrastingly warm welcome. Yet there’s a definite strain in her eagerness to stuff this too-thin elder child with food, not to mention elbowing him toward estranged ex-girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung). Little brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) carries a resentful air of abandonment toward Adrian, particularly since now there’s no buffer between him and a father “worried” about his having abandoned manly sports for the school drama club. This is the kind of household in which an adolescent’s pop collection can be confiscated and destroyed under the influence of a local pastor’s war on sinful “secular music.”
It’s an atmosphere airless enough to nearly trigger panic attacks in the prodigal son. He manages to reestablish himself as a brotherly ally, but the weight of secrets withheld from his parents is almost crushing. He can’t even unburden himself at first with Carly, who seems not to have grasped his sexual orientation and carries a torch of mixed yearning and jilted fury. When he finally comes clean, she (and we) learn that the AIDS epidemic has become brutally central to his existence.
Tan’s screenplay (from a story idea co-written by returning collaborator Hutch) trades in a rigorous understatement that feels true to the characters’ individual circumstances and surrounding culture. As with “Pit Stop,” there’s an unforced attention to the minutiae of scraping-along Texas lives, with flavorsome contributions from DP Hutch and production designer Brittany Ingram — they make this family’s tchotchke-filled humble home feel both “cozy” and suffocating. The mood of suppressed emotion is so potent that it almost seems like overkill when Tan finally allows some (perhaps too many) tearful episodes at the close. Still, nothing here rings false.
All the performances are very good (though one might ask why no one has a regional accent), with stage-trained Smith providing a center of quiet intensity. Madsen has some especially lovely moments as a woman who, like her husband, isn’t quite as naive as she pretends to be.