Christmas is usually billed as a time for family and loved ones that all too often descends into a nightmarish chasm of television reruns, three days of increasingly colder turkey, and a lack of postal services which renders gift cards essentially useless until the New Year. So here is 1985 (2018), a brilliant piece of seasonally themed bittersweetness to get you through until the New Year’s Eve party.

Adrian Lester (Cory Michael Smith), an ad agency employee working in New York returns to his Texas hometown to celebrate Christmas with his family.

Now many of you might automatically jump to the conclusion that this is going to be one of those films were the successful but hollow city person rediscovers the joy of simple small-town life as Adrian finds happiness. But you would be dead wrong and obviously didn’t pay attention to the introduction paragraph.

At home, Adrian lavishes his conservatively religious family, father Dale (Michael Chiklis), mother Eileen (Virginia Madsen) and young brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) with expensive gifts, and tries to re-establish a friendship with ex-girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung).

Adrian, however, is neither trying to brag about his wealth nor pick up where he left off with Carly. Adrian is a closeted Gay man, and a victim of America’s HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Unsure how much time he has left, he tries to reach out to those closest to him despite his fear that they will pull away the moment he tells them the truth.

I’ve watched other films that have dealt with the AIDS epidemic, bigger Hollywood ones and smaller Independent movies. So while I was sure 1985 was going to handle the issue with frankness and brutal honesty, I was still expecting that it would be, fundamentally, the same as before. What I wasn’t expecting was 1985 to lay an emotional sucker punch to the solar plexus and leave me gasping.

The emotional struggle Adrian goes through to tell his family the truth about himself is painful in its honesty and rawness; there is no big set piece where he can tell them, no moment of dramatic tension. Just an appeal to his family. And 1985 is, at its core, a Family Film; a film about families. What begins as stilted domestic scenes give way to organic character growth and personal revelation. When Dale finds out about Adrian’s sexuality he is angry, yet Chiklis doesn’t play it with the confused anger of a bigot which may have been the original intention. Instead, he plays it with the hurt anger of a parent that felt that their child had to hide something from them, that they didn’t trust them to keep loving them.

When I started watching it, I was getting a heavy White vs. Blue collar vibe from it. I honestly thought that it was going to use ideas of social class to reinforce the gulf between Adrian and his family, which I was getting ready to call bullshit on. But director Yen Tan uses this to create a perceived gulf, not an actual one. Adrian is as much a victim of viewing his family this way as they are of him.

Filmed on Super 16mm in Black and White, the film has what seems at first to be a brutal simplicity to its camerawork which masks a more complex cinematography, just under the surfaces. In the opening scenes at the home, the 180-degree rule is not so much broken, rather played with to develop a sense of unease. Exterior shots from the left of the screen become Interior location on the right with the liminal space of the door changing the geography of the film. Shots are just off on the Rule of Thirds, just a little, such as during the dinner scene that is so darkly lit it feels something akin to a horror film, heightening the views discomfort at the families’ social nervousness.

A tragic slice of life film that is fun for all the family in the post-Christmas dinner haze.

Dir:  Yen Tan
Scr: Yen Tan, Hutch,
Cast: Cory Michael Smith, Michael Chiklis, Virginia Madsen, Aidan Langford, Jamie Chung
Ash Christian, Hutch
DOP: Hutch
Country: USA
Runtime: 85 minutes

1985 is in cinemas now.

By Pat Fox