Starring: Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madson, Michael Chiklis, Aidan Langford, Jamie Chung, Ryan Piers Williams
Director: Yen Tan
At this time of year, the cinemas are usually filled with festive family cheer and Hollywood optimism to compliment the joy of the Christmas season, but 1985 couldn’t be further removed from these rose-tinted views of the world. Filmed in high-contrast black and white, this is a movie that goes straight for the emotional jugular, in a nuanced but powerful piece set at the height of the AIDS Crisis.
It is 1985 and Adrian (Smith)has returned to visit his family in Texas for Christmas. It has been several years since he last visited and in that time, his younger brother Andrew (Langford) has become a teenager and has stopped playing football and started to show an interest in theatre. His father (Chiklis) doesn’t know how to talk to either of his sons, whom he has come to realise are both gay, but he refuses to share this with his wife (Madson), thinking she will be as ashamed as he is. Adrian has returned with a massive secret, however. He has AIDS. And where he had stayed in the closet all these years, he must now face up to telling his family the truth, as well as Carly (Chung), his high school girlfriend.
In 2016, Quebecois auteur Xavier Dolan essentially made the same movie with It’s Only The End Of The World with the crème de la crème of French acting, which swept the board at the Césars. In that film, the family were an overbearing seething mess of alpha characters, pinballing from explosion to explosion and so obsessed with their own petty drama that Gaspard Ulliel’s suffering with the disease seemed almost irrelevant. But in this, Adrian’s pain is just as unspoken as the tension amongst the family. In contrast to Dolan’s movie, the threat of violence is replaced by the social repression of an Evangelical community, which goes so far as to prevent Andrew from being able to listen to pop music without his Madonna cassettes being perceived as idolatry. But while the repression is wholly present, it is a stifling silent subjugation, which Adrian had hoped to have left behind forever.
Corey Michael Smith – you may know his as the Riddler in TV’s Gotham – finds the balance between the unsaid and the façade, only letting the mask slip when he is alone or with Carly. When he finally has an honest moment with his mother, only then do we see the truth in the misery he is enduring, where for just a brief moment he is a boy in need of his mother. And when, in the heart-breaking montage at the end of the film, we hear his big brotherly advice to his little brother, it’s hard not to feel that he is speaking the words of an entire generation of gay men who were silenced early by the ruthless pandemic.
By shooting the film in black and white, the film feels hard, cold and as though made in a whole different era. However, this 21st century depiction is a movie that should have been made in the year it was set, the year in fact I was born. It’s compelling on a character level, but breaks no new ground, especially finding release in the same year as the definitive AIDS retrospective 120 BPM. But just like its monochrome sister Nebraska, it finds its drama in the smaller moments; a pause between platitudes, a gesture or a look. Its performances are strikingly authentic and it does well in depicting the personal pain of an international crisis through the lens of domestic normalcy.