The setup of writer-director Yen Tan’s 1985 is simple: A gay man comes home for Christmas with a secret to tell. The story is also akin to that of Jean-Luc Lagarce’s iconic play Only the End of the World, where the inability of the main character to speak his truth ends up exposing the bleakest, and the most open, of all secrets: his family’s. This seems to be the way similar narratives work if they’re to give birth to something greater than mere literalness. In Annemarie Jacir’s superb Wajib, for instance, the son returning home to Palestine isn’t gay, but his secret proves to be ultimately irrelevant compared to the family malaise that his homecoming sets off.
By contrast, secrets remain largely unspoken in 1985, a re-working of Tan’s much less schmaltzy 2016 short of the same name. The secrets rot inside the characters’ bodies, never leading to anything beyond themselves and the shroud of shame that wraps around them. Shame, and the solace emanating from a cassette tape of Madonna’s Like a Virgin, is the only line of kinship between Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) and his younger brother, Andrew (Aidan Langford), a depressed and gender non-conforming teenager whose future is preemptively marred by the weight of the closet and AIDS.
A beautiful portrait of queer brotherhood, one that cinema has yet to produce, could have emerged from this scenario. Instead, Tan insists on all-too-predictable misery, dwelling on the open secret of Adrian’s homosexuality inside a home where God is welcome but queers aren’t. In 1985, gay misery comes in the shape of weeping alone in the wilderness—and while saying to oneself, “I don’t know what to do!”—and homophobia is enacted through the cartoonish figure of the beer-drinking father (Michael Chiklis) who’s worried about his younger son giving up football to take up theater.
At times, the characters and the situations they’re in seem to derive from an outdated, and particularly myopic, fantasy of the types of horrors that inhabited a gay man’s working-class American home, from the incessant religious banter to the forced heterosexual match-making with some available girl. The film’s only flirtation with raw feeling happens when Adrian’s mother, Eileen (Virginia Madsen), is chatting with him in the bathroom as he takes a bath and confides that she never voted for Ronald Reagan. “You voted for Mondale?” Adrian asks, delighted by his mother’s confession.
That scene is full of clandestine intimacy—spiked with the coded way in which this mother tells her child that, though her hands are tied by the rules and regulations governing the heterosexual family in the ‘80s, she is, in theory, on his side. It’s a perverse promise of alliance teeming with the ambiguity that the rest of 1985 doesn’t find. Especially not in a subplot—one that sees Adrian reconnecting with an old girlfriend, Carly (Jamie Chung)—that’s botched by its overtly predictable, and sentimental, denouement.
Tan doesn’t pursue the authenticity of the bathroom-set scene between mother and son, leaning instead on the triteness of tears and agony—the mourning of the brevity of lives that don’t truly begin until one escapes to New York. Adrian is too flat as a character, his plight too generic, for his tears to count as something other than a sentimental ready-made. The problem of authenticity is also embodied by the film’s black-and-white cinematography, which is difficult to justify. 1985 is largely shot like the original Mildred Pierce, featuring the kinds of harsh shadows that normally lead to murder but that are also underpinned by a certain narrative sensuality that Tan’s film lacks. The black and white of this film feels like an easy filter draped around the elements in the frame, hoping to grant them the gravitas that the elements themselves can’t radiate—much like Adrian’s saccharine tears.