With drag now being on mainstream TV, Pride being one of the biggest parties of the year and an increase in LGBT+ characters, we sometimes forget how much has changed within the last 40 years.
In 2018, queer experiences were represented like never before. Pose, Ryan Murphy’s TV show about 1980’s ball culture held poverty, prostitution and the AIDS epidemic at its heart.
Meanwhile, Boy, Erased and The Miseducation of Cameron Post gave audiences an insight into what it means to be queer living in a Christian family.
Now comes, Yan Tan’s 2018 drama film, 1985. Cory Michael Smith (Gotham) plays Adrian, a closeted gay man, visiting his conservative, Christian family in Texas for the holidays. Throughout the film it is heavily implied that Adrian is not being honest with his family about his new life in New York. From his apparent new high paying job in advertising that allows him to buy incredibly expensive Christmas gifts to the shared flat he shares with two other male ‘friends’. The film portrays the conversations Adrian has with those previously in his life, the moments he has to be honest with them and the internal struggle he faces.
However, it soon becomes apparent that Adrian’s secret is bigger than first suggested and he is in fact living with AIDS. According to the doctors, this will be his last christmas.
Yan Tan’s cinematography deals with this painful subject beautifully. In conversations with his family, the camera focuses on Adrian’s face, giving insight into the internal struggle Adrian faces. Additionally, deafening silence is used to manipulate time. As Adrian stands and waits for one of his old school bullies to return with an apologetic gift of a pie, those few seconds become excruciatingly long, as they would for someone with a fatal illness.
The word AIDS is never actually said in the duration of the film, it haunts the narrative like an elephant in the room.
The main issue the film deals with is loss. Does Adrian be honest with his family and potentially lose them in the last moments of his life or does he allow them to continue to live in this fantasy?
For queer individuals in the 1980’s loss plagued their lives. Often being withdrawn from, or even abandoned by, their biological family, they then found themselves losing their new chosen families to AIDS. Adrian points out that he has attended 6 funerals within the last year.
The majority of queer people today will never face this level of loss. AIDS is no longer a death sentence. 1985 does an amazing job of allowing its audience to understand the pains queer people dealt with until fairly recently.
Additionally, the film looks at how the culture within society helps create this loss. From the start of the film, the preacher on the Christian radio station infiltrates the family’s home. As he rants about hell he becomes a background noise, a constant negativity telling Adrian he is a sinner and imperfect.
Arguably, elements of the film can be cliché. Adrian’s family are nothing extraordinary and fill every stereotype of a southern, baptist family. Michael Chiklis (Fantastic Four, American Horror Story) plays an aloof, emotionally-repressed, alcoholic father who is constantly policing his sons’ effeminacy. Virginia Madsen (Candyman, Sideways) is a sweet, nurturing, yet slightly overbearing mother who is a lot less naïve than her family give her credit for. Finally Adrian’s brother Andrew, played by Aidan Langford, is a kid in the midst of the acne stage of puberty. He idolises his distant elder brother. Andrew is bullied by his peers at school yet is unapologetic in who he is and what he likes.
Additionally, while back home, Adrian deals with a confused ex-girlfriend, played by Jamie Chung (The Hangover Part II, Big Hero 6), hurt by Adrian’s leaving but also happy to see him again.
However, these cliché elements are also what makes the film so relatable and personal. Adrian’s struggle of returning home to his un-affirming parents is a struggle relatable to many queer individuals even in the present day. The characters may be cliché but this is a story that we rarely see in film.
The film feels like a correction of history. The choice to shoot in black and white feels like Yan is saying, ‘here are the films and the stories that should have been produced back then’. With this there’s a glimmer of hope. Though loss pervaded the lives of men like Adrian, their stories shall not be forgotten.