Director: Yen Tan
Cast: Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis, Jamie Chung, Aidan Langford
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In 1987, a group of gay activists in New York formed the Silence = Death Project, which began with the plastering of posters around the city featuring a pink triangle against a black background with the statement ‘Silence = Death’ below it. The group’s manifesto addressed the ongoing AIDS crisis, declaring that the silence about the oppression and annihilation of gay people must be broken as a matter of survival. Their logo would later be offered to the protest group ACT UP, with which it remains closely identified, as recently seen in Robin Campillo’s film, 120 BPM. Alongside the calling out of other institutional forces like the Vatican and the Food and Drug Administration, the Silence = Death Project’s original poster also included the question “Why is Reagan silent about AIDS?”.
Set two years before this project’s launch, 1985’s writer-director Yen Tan uses silence to address both the stigmatisation of the Reagan administration and the growing AIDS epidemic. The words “gay” and “AIDS” are never spoken onscreen, but their significance looms large over this muted, moving drama, where the only real ostentatious quality is the decision to shoot it in black and white and on Super 16mm film.
Adrian Lester (Cory Michael Smith) is a twenty-something man who travels from his current home of New York City to his family home of Fort Worth, Texas, for the Christmas holidays, to spend them with his conservative Christian parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) and younger brother, Andrew (Aidan Langford), none of whom are aware he’s gay. There are various degrees and causes of unease in their interactions, like Andrew’s resentment at having an NYC trip to see Adrian cancelled by his brother, Adrian’s three-year break from any meaningful visit, and the surprising extravagance of his Christmas presents for the family, including open return tickets for a vacation to Hawaii. The lie of a promotion at his advertising agency job is the cover for the latter, but Adrian is really attempting to perform a nice gesture for his family as he is convinced this may be the last Christmas he’ll get to spend with them. He also makes an effort to see his former girlfriend, Carly (Jamie Chung), whom he abruptly left with little explanation in his move to New York. She understandably views their night out together as him attempting to rekindle an old flame, but Adrian is insistent that he really just wants to hang out.
Some viewers may note a narrative similarity with Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World, which followed a man returning home after a much longer period of absence to announce his terminal illness to his family, only for an afternoon of screaming matches and resentments to hinder him from making that leap. Like its lead character, 1985 is a more restrained affair. Even with the tense confrontations it does have, the closest thing to shouting comes when Adrian accidentally cuts himself while preparing food. It’s a generally lo-fi film, even if the score, when present in certain scenes, can be a bit obtrusive, and it benefits from Tan’s details in characterisation.
Chiklis’ patriarch, Dale, is a tough and emasculated figure, but he’s still loving, deceptively aware and regretful that he can’t connect well with pre-teen Andrew, who it’s implied might be like his brother in terms of his sexuality, something that Adrian seems aware of with a parting gift at the film’s end. There’s also a cute touch in Adrian and Andrew going to see A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge at the cinema, considering that film’s reputation as a queer text about closeted homosexuality; just one example of each of Tan’s choices furthering the film’s story and themes.
Madsen’s Eileen, meanwhile, is devout – and their church is one that’s particularly vocal about damnation for those who deviate from conservative heteronormativity – but also far more understanding and openminded than Adrian had recalled, confessing to her oldest son that she actually didn’t vote for Reagan for a second term like virtually everyone else in the local community, something she hides from her husband. By the end of 1985, even if Adrian can’t quite confess all he’d like to reveal to everyone he wanted to see, there’s a sense that, with time, they might be more understanding than that present moment in time necessarily allows them to be with ease. The tragedy being, of course, that the world and culture they inhabit, and the nature of the unspoken illness at that point in time, means that opportunity may never come.