Filmmaker Yen Tan has made his mark telling sensitive if not exactly edgy stories about the gay experience — “Happy Birthday” and “Pit Stop” are his best known directing credits.
For his latest, he dabbles in what one hesitates to call “nostalgia” for a story set in the Reagan Era AIDS crisis, a time when “coming out” was more unusual, more difficult simply because “It gets easier” didn’t exist.
His “1985” mimics the look of many of the pioneering indie films of the genre labeled “queer cinema,” a grainy black and white melodrama that calls to mind “Liana,” “Go Fish” and “Coming Out.”
It’s a poignant reminder of how bleak things were in the earliest days of AIDS, with the country slow to mobilize against “the gay plague” while in the thrall of a president beholden to homophobic Christian Conservatives. Tan’s elegy suggests this might have been the loneliest, most hopeless period in recent history for homosexuals in America.
Especially in the American South. That’s where Adrian (Cory Michael Smith of “Gotham” and “Carol”) is from, Fort Worth, Texas. He moved to New York to “start over,” and now he’s returned to his working class Christian conservative home for the first time in three Christmases.
Adrian comes bearing extravagant and thoughtful gifts for his mom (the ever-luminous Virginia Madsen) and mechanic Dad (Michael Chiklis). He’s here to mend fences with the much younger brother (Aidan Langford) who felt abandoned and ignored.
And maybe, his mother hopes, he’ll catch up with old girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung of TV’s “Real World,” “The Gifted” and “Gotham”).
As he wraps presents and takes part in the rituals of the season — in church, in the kitchen, at the dinner table — Adrian keeps it together. When he’s alone, he weeps. Adrian has secrets and we can guess what they are.
Dad grousing about “How three grown men can live together, like they’re still in college” tips us about his living situation. Mom’s “You’ve gotten so THIN” preface her repeated entreaties for him to call Carly seem to fall on deaf ears.
And the way he reacts when he nicks his finger chopping vegetables…
Mom keeps the radio tuned to the all-preaching/all the time station, so not talking might be the safest way to get through the week. But things need to be said.
“I have some news. Just been waiting for the right time to tell you.”
More importantly, Adrian is picking up on his acne-spotted kid-brother’s angst. He quit the football team and joined drama club. He hides his music from his parents, as they’re in a record-burning congregation.
“Since when are you into Madonna?”
Tan handles all this with a delicacy that mirrors how mainstream cinema was looking at gay lives in that pre-“Torch Song Trilogy” age. Don’t look for anything edgy, just sensitive scenes with Adrian fighting the urge to tell someone — ANYone — what his life is really like in the big city, who he really loves and what’s weighing heaviest on his heart.
There’s little that’s new here, but the performances give this time capsule picture heart, with Madsen, Smith and Chiklis taking their archetypal characters beyond “type.”
Smith’s scenes with Madsen shimmer with emotional life.
Maybe no one, gay or straight, should be nostalgic for “1985.” But Tan makes a good case for why it’s a period worth remembering, if only because “It GOT easier” in the ensuing decades.
MPAA Rating: adult themes, alcohol use, profanity
Cast: Cory Michael Smith, Virginia Madsen, Michael Chiklis, Jamie Chung, Aiden Langford
Credits: Written and directed by Yen Tan. A Wolfe release.
Running time: 1:25