1985 Movie Review: A Powerfully Meditative, Multi-Layered Gem

1985 is an understated yet powerhouse gem about small-town life and the AIDS crisis.
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Even though I’ve never really left the area I grew up in, in my opinion, the film 1985 still perfectly captures the struggle of being able to come back home. The feeling of going back to the small town you lived in your whole life that you desperately left behind, to escape either its mundanity or to bury family troubles, can be a conflicting one.

Yet, that is just one layer to the story of 1985. It also captures the feeling of being closeted and demonstrates the AIDS crisis to fit the time period in which the film takes place. In the hands of a less-skilled director, all these different layers would be rather scattered but director Yen Tan manages to weave them together seamlessly. In a simplistic manner, he chiefly makes the film a straightforward story about a man coming back home to his conservative family with the aforementioned layers being peeled as the film progresses. As a result, 1985 ends up hitting you in a powerful yet understated manner. 

Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) decides to visit his conservative Texas family for Christmas. Inevitably, they’re glad to see him come home but it’s clear that Adrian is on the fence about the idea. Partially because of him running into old classmates and a former flame named Carly (Jamie Chung). But another reason is because he is closeted and dying of AIDS but can’t quite find the words to say to his family. He even struggling to tell his younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) who is having conflictions about his own identity.

Interestingly, the brotherly dynamic manages to be the film’s highest point. The bond between Adrian and Andrew feels quite genuine and it is thanks in large part to the actors playing them. But it is also heartwarming seeing two siblings being supportive of each other while they have to hide their true selves in order to please their parents. Even if Adrian doesn’t quite tell his younger brother that he’s gay, he still encourages Aidan’s love for female pop singers that are also gay icons like Madonna.

As for the actors playing Adrian’s parents, Michael Chiklis and Virginia Madsen, they both do an exemplary job. Virginia Madsen is understated yet effective as a mother who is loving yet a little too attached to her children. Meanwhile, Michael Chiklis elevates what could’ve easily been played as a villainous dad role. It’s clear that his character has close-minded views but he still slowly comes to grips with what his son might be hiding and Chiklis presents his processing as a form of discordant understanding.

Just like how the film captures the fear of coming out to your parents, as previously mentioned, it also perfectly captures the essence of small-town life. It shows how those that are able to leave their small town are pretty much viewed as noteworthy since living there can be a bubble and it can be easy to succumb to its quiet, laid back nature. Because Adrian was able to escape and live in a place like NYC, he’s essentially more of a celebrity than one of the most popular guys in his high school who he ends up running into while on a grocery run.

However, the conflict of coming back to the place you tried to leave behind is just one aspect of 1985 which is sure to be an unsung masterpiece. It is a portrait of small-town life that brilliantly captures the historical context of its time period and features flawless performances from its actors. There may be those that might feel that it portrays its conflicts within a time span that’s too short since it’s about 85 minutes. But it still proves to be quite effective regardless.

1985 opens Oct. 26 in NY/LA

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