“Will you wait for me if you go first?”
There’s a lot to like emotionally about Yen Tan‘s 1985 and some things to be desired in execution. It’s a period piece focused upon a conservative Texas family with military man father who sees his differences from his own “tough” Dad as potential weaknesses, a loving housewife mother recently finding the courage to break from her husband’s flawed political and religious zealotry, and two sons carving an identity for themselves despite a volatile environment wholly non-conducive to their wants and desires. Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) is introduced as the lead—the elder son who performed the role of man’s man as long as possible before escaping to New York for a fresh restart to live as a gay artist removed from his family’s oppressiveness steeped in Catholicism.
He’s yet to tell anyone from his past, though, and has mostly removed those he cared about from his present. Adrian stopped returning the calls of his best friend and ex-girlfriend Carly (Jamie Chung). He’s canceled planned trips with his younger brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), blew off his father (Michael Chiklis‘ Dale) when an impromptu visit was on the table, and hasn’t been back home to see his mother (Virginia Madsen‘s Eileen) since Thanksgiving three years previous. So his decision to come for Christmas now is unsurprisingly treated with caution on both sides of the equation. Dale is distant, Eileen suffocating, Andrew angry, and Adrian anxious to explain the intense anguish he’s suffered this past year while afraid of the consequences he’s been desperate to avoid.
Will he tell them? Can he? The more he ignores their concern about what’s wrong, the more he retreats. It’s a heartbreaking process wherein Adrian can’t help spewing lies instead—innocuous ones to deflect small talk and big ones to exacerbate the situation with false hopes and successes that only make revealing the truth more impossible to vocalize. But while the resulting individual one-on-ones can be devastating to experience, they’re ultimately strung together in a disjointed manner. Tan presents what’s happening as resonant vignettes of memory and pain without allowing the room to breathe and truly sink in. We can barely process a doozy of an exchange between Adrian and Carly before we’re in the next scene as though narrative chronology is on equal footing with emotive depth.
It’s not. The fact that the whole is bookended by airport arrival and departure is nothing but a construct with which to bring them together. What we care about as viewers is what happens in-between—not because it leads us from A to B, but because it matters. I think Tan’s desire to keep Adrian’s not-so-secret secret a secret for so long hurts things because having his lead be cloak and dagger with his family is different than him being cloak and dagger with his audience. By keeping us in the dark about what we already know, Tan unwittingly plants the seed that we might not know after all. So rather than allow myself to simply empathize with the harrowing subject matter, I wondered what his game was.
Spoiler: there is no game. What Adrian needs to tell his parents is exactly what you think, so put any uncertainty to bed now and let the power of his soul bearing to some and continued suppression with others wash over you. Because that’s where 1985 truly excels. Look past over-the-top performances better suited for the stage thanks to the stilted progression of physically setting up an environment that’s already inherently living and breathing psychologically and get through the repetitive cycle of closed-off relationships and overt parallels between brothers. Do this and reward yourself by basking in the glory that is an awakening for each member of the Lester family. Appreciate that Tan embraces complexity, flaws, and compassion when he could have ignored them for a bow-tied catharsis.
So while the overall orchestration of visual and structural form might be lacking, I don’t think anyone can deny the strength of its disparate parts. The film soars during both sequences shared by Smith and Chung because of the slow reveal of their pasts merging with the inevitable struggle of their intersecting present, emotionally raw performances that pull no punches in allowing them to be frustrated and guarded towards blanket forgiveness, and the intuitive editing that creates tonally interesting montages of time rather than static shots of reactions. We recognize the bond they have to peer beneath their surface insecurities and finally let the truth out about who they are and what they aspire to become. All pretenses are dropped so reality can come pouring in.
Letting those pretenses remain intact when Adrian is with his family, however, isn’t conversely bad. How it leaves him frozen is important because of the year this film takes place. He knows what might happen if he tells them and also that them accepting it to be by his side for what’s coming might be more painful than the opposite. His fear also lets them take the lead as far as pushing him (Dale) or giving him space (Eileen). To witness their respective exchanges under the impression that they know part of what’s happening if not all is to see them try and reconcile their faith/upbringing with their love. Tan doesn’t pretend this is an easy situation. He doesn’t sacrifice their identities to supply Adrian a disingenuous ending.
It therefore means something when Chiklis drunkenly seeks commendation for not abusing his children right before ensuring his son knows he can rely on him no matter what. It means something when Madsen admits to not voting for Reagan because it’s her way of setting a path for Adrian to know he can trust her not to be the parrot he may believe she is. I think Tan should have done more to avoid implying Andrew might be gay too since his being a sensitive and creative heterosexual is enough to counter Dale’s toxic masculinity and perhaps more potent as far as letting a final message of inclusion and not being alone transcend the labels 1985 keeps unspoken otherwise, but I get wanting to augment that central point.