With AIDS no longer being a death sentence, it may be hard for today's generation to understand not just the gravity of those early days of terror but the terror itself. 1985, a strong if perhaps at times predictable drama chronicling one man's impending death, does a good job in humanizing those aware and unaware of this terrible disease.
Adrian Lester (Cory Michael Smith) has come back to his Texas home (an unspecified suburb of Dallas) for Christmas. We soon see that he is different from his more faith-based parents Eileen (Virginia Madsen) and Dale (Michael Chiklis). Adrian wants to get closer to his younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford) but Andrew is a bit cold towards him. This is probably due to how Adrian has not kept in touch and skipped out on a promised trip to visit Adrian in New York City.
There is, however, a reason for Adrian being a bit separate from his family. There is a reason for the surprisingly lavish gifts Adrian gives them, including a trip to Hawaii. There is also a reason for his distance from Carly (Jaime Chung), a former friend with some benefits who is starting a career as a stand-up comedienne.
Adrian is dying of AIDS. He wants to tell those around him that he is gay and that he may not live to see Christmas, 1986, but ultimately, he can tell only Carly. That is not to say that the Lesters are not aware of something being amiss. Dale reveals that he made a side trip to New York after attending a fellow veteran's funeral and saw Adrian wrapped around another man. Dale is also privately troubled by Andrew's switch from football to drama, and his love for Madonna also raises concerns. Eileen is caring, but she too knows her son is keeping something from her. With Adrian going back to New York City, she quietly tells him that when he's ready to tell her, she'll try to be ready to hear.
1985 is a very quiet film. No one has a big scene or moment, not even when conflict comes up. Dale and Carly both are angry and/or upset at Adrian, but there is no yelling or even raising of voices. Instead, both are assertive on their points, but not violent or belligerent. I think it communicates more a sense of hurt than hostility, making them more believable as characters.
I think the humanizing of the characters is to the film's benefit, as we can see in 1985 these five people, flaws and all. Other films might have made Adrian very saintly or Dale perhaps too aggressive and belligerent. However, writer/director Yen Tan resists this temptation. Yes, Dale for example is still a gruff, growly individual and Eileen is sweeter and more nurturing. However, Chiklis has a scene with Smith where he talks about how his father never hugged him to express emotion. His background as a Vietnam veteran still haunted by his experiences in combat also reveals him to be more than the somewhat hostile man.
In the brief time frame and running time (85 minutes), 1985 tells its story simply. Perhaps too simply, as for most of the film we get very few hints about what exactly troubles Adrian. We see him take some medication and be evasive about matters, but it is not until close to the end that the hints become stronger. For example, Adrian cuts himself while slicing an onion. While Eileen goes to get a band-aid, Adrian's panic over the blood is so great that he tosses the onion and even the cutting board into the trash. This moment, brief as it is, reminds viewers of the panic AIDS caused. It also suggests that Eileen may finally get hints about what is going on.
There are many subtleties and suggestions in 1985. It might be stereotypical, but Andrew's newfound love for theater and Madonna strongly suggests that he too might be gay. It is never made clear whether Andrew is, but it does explain Dale's growing sharpness with both his sons given how he knows Adrian's sexual orientation. In some ways, the subtleties make 1985 more tragic. Dale knows that Adrian is gay. Eileen knows, or strongly suspects, that Adrian has AIDS. They may not know that it is both. We the audience now know, but Adrian's inability to verbalize it for most of the film makes him all the more tragic.
1985 has strong performances from most of the cast. Cory Michael Smith scored major recognition when playing The Riddler on Gotham, and now he shows us a softer, gentler side as Adrian. For most of the film, Adrian is a bit distant from things, such as when he meets up with Marc (Ryan Piers Williams), a repentant former bully. It is not until he reveals all to Carly that we see Smith use so much skill to move the viewer. Adrian's revelation of his late partner Leo's agony when he ultimately succumbed to AIDS, coupled with his thorough loneliness in his grief, is heartbreaking. We see that it is not just his impending, inevitable death that tears at him. It is his inability to share his grief with his family, both of Leo's death and the knowledge that he too will most likely be gone soon. 1985 is another strong calling card for Smith, and I hope he gets more roles to showcase his skills.
He is matched by Virginia Madsen, who excels as Eileen. She plays Eileen as very gentle and sincere, always trying to keep the peace, nurturing if sometimes a bit too involved. Her last scene with Smith though makes one almost weep. "You don't have to tell me until you're ready. And I'll try to be ready when you are," she tells him. By keeping things simple, Madsen, Smith and Yan all make this moment all the more beautiful and heartbreaking. Madsen even has a small moment of humor, when she quietly, almost conspiratorially confesses to Adrian that she voted for Walter Mondale in the 1984 election. It does remind me of a similar moment in Peggy Sue Got Married only it was Kennedy that the mother secretly supported. The more things change...
One can fault Chiklis for being a bit too gruff and stereotypical as the working-class Dale. At times it skated towards parody of the not-tolerant man. However, his last moment with Smith when Adrian hugs Dale shows the father, in his way, letting go of anger to embrace the child he loves. Chung was a little more stilted as Carly, but like Madsen and Chiklis, her last major scene works well.
I do not know why the last scenes are the best for people, but there it is.
1985 is made up of many master shots, where we have the characters in the middle of the frame. The black-and-white cinematography may be too artsy for some. You are, however, left not with a sense of either hope or despair, but with mourning for everyone involved. 1985 is a well-acted, well-written, quiet film that reminds viewers of the early, terrifying days of AIDS.