Sometimes the most heart-rending and poignant messages come from that which is left unsaid. Austin, Texas director Yen Tan’s SXSW Film 1985 weaves magnificently through familial intricacies when Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) returns to his suburban Dallas home from New York after not having visited his family for the last three years. Attempting to find the best way to unpack and disclose his HIV-positive status and the recent loss of his lover, Adrian struggles to find the words to best convey his truth in light of mid-80’s Bible Belt Texas and to his religious mother (Virginia Madsen), conservative Vietnam-vet father (Michael Chiklis) and adolescent gay brother (Aidan Langford).
Shot in black and white 16mm film, 1985 serves as a literal translation to the AIDS epidemic in the Reagan-era, a time and place void of nuances when it came to understanding the surrounding politics and community. Never once uttering the words “AIDS or “gay” throughout the film spotlights 1985 as an accurate depiction of what it was like for many at the time to attempt to come out and reveal their status towards their friends and family. Tan’s use of black and white film also places emphasis on each character’s emotions and gestures to their very honest and subtle essence. The dynamic between Adrian’s father and mother plays out masterfully as Adrian feels simultaneously constricted by his father’s revelations towards his sexuality and soothed by conversations with his mother (disclosing to him that she didn’t actually vote for Reagan). While Adrian’s concealed nature remains the centerpiece of Tan’s story, each individual has secrets they resist revealing to one another. Often parents’ understanding of what they believe is being communicated to their children is overshadowed by pieces of conversation latched onto, a passing comment having repercussions far more substantial than their initial intent of what they wish to express. 1985 acknowledges the mindset and presumptions passed on from generation to generation, simultaneously placing his film in a timeless and relatable realm yet with the hope that we can gradually chisel away and make change happen. As Adrian gets to know his budding teenage brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) and sees him facing an inevitably similar life path, they form an unwavering bond as Adrian gently guides him the best way he knows how, serving as a mentor in a town where Andrew has no role models to look up to. Despite 1985’s emotional intensity and the inevitability of a life too short lived, Tan also reminds us of the multiple layers of beauty that are inherently entwined with romantic and familial love, and of fleeting memories that never cease to shine bright and rise above the darkness.