SXSW 2018: Austin director’s ‘1985’ tells story of family and secrets during the AIDS crisis

In “1985,” adapted from his own award-winning short film, Austin-based director Yen Tan has fleshed out a poignant storyline about a closeted young Texan who returns home to visit his conservative family for Christmas.

Adrian (Cory Michael Smith, Fox’s “Gotham”) left everything behind and got as far away from his past as humanly possible after graduation. We never see his life in New York, but it clearly has allowed him to live openly far from the judgment at home. He speaks vaguely of roommates, quietly changing the subject when asked about them or if he’s dating anybody at the moment.


His father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), is a gruff Vietnam veteran who works in an auto shop and, when home, is often acutely tuned in to talk radio. His mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), is softer and kinder in every way, admitting in a hushed conversation that she “didn’t vote for Reagan last year.” The core household beliefs under Dale are guided by religion, strict discipline and a general avoidance of secular culture. This doesn’t make things easy for Andrew (Aidan Langford), Adrian’s younger brother, who secretly listens to a Madonna cassette with headphones on and has shifted his focus at school from sports to the theater.

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Returning to Texas is not strictly about celebrating Christmas. Adrian lands back at home with a mission to finally be honest with his family, not only letting them know he is gay but to also inform them that he has AIDS. Faced with the uncertainty of their response, he instead tries to reconnect and start out with his friend Carly (Jamie Chung), someone he has had a falling out with since moving away.

Shot on Kodak Super 16 film stock, the stark black-and-white cinematography provides many shadowy shots that fall in line with Adrian’s inability to be truthful to the people he loves most. A huge part of his life is hidden in plain sight, or it would be if he lived closer. If his health wasn’t closing on him, sexuality is something that he may not have ever felt that he could be open about with them.

Smith superbly expresses the struggle of a character who is desperately trying to hold everything inside, but my favorite performance here comes from Chung. She initially has to deliver a woman who is angry with her best friend, a person whom she has known since they were 10 and has possibly loved as long. It isn’t until Adrian finally breaks down and tells her the truth about what he is facing and what he has already lost that she is able to realize that the situation is much bigger than her feelings of rejection. Even though they don’t have as much screen time, Madsen and Chiklis each have powerful moments in the script that could’ve faltered with less experienced actors.

Knowing the history of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980s, it’s unlikely that Adrian was able to walk away with a storybook ending. Despite the subject matter, “1985” rarely dips into maudlin territory. It wisely chooses instead to celebrate unconditional love and the notion that what we have in common is greater than what divides us.

“1985” screened Friday at South by Southwest and plays again at 6:30 p.m. March 10 at AFS; 7:15 p.m. March 13 at Rollins; and 9 p.m. March 15 at Stateside. Grade: B-

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