Vancouver Queer Film Festival review: 1985

We know the story

I wasn’t planning to write reviews this year—too much going on, at work and elsewhere—but I’ve gotten my heart ripped out by the opening gala film and it is not letting go of me. I need to get it out of my head somehow, so here we go. The only review this year!

1985 is a simple and familiar story. If you haven’t lived it, then you know someone who has, or you’ve read about it. I realise it will probably best resonate with queers of a certain age, but 1985 was not that long ago, and though the height of AIDS paranoia is behind us, we still deal with Christian homophobia, fire-and-brimstone preachers on the radio, and Madonna’s latest tour. We still deal with shame and silence. Besides, aren’t the 80s all the rage these days? I half-expected Andrew to be fighting the Demogorgon or something.

Bottom line: we know this story. Its simplicity and familiarity is what makes it beautiful and heartbreaking to me. Director / screenwriter Yen Tan paints a picture with elegantly minimal storytelling, and I’m there. We’ve got a simple cast of characters: Adrian who escaped his small Texas town for the big gay city lights of New York; Andrew, his drama-class-loving little brother; salt-of-the-Earth Christian working-class parents who have no real clue how to relate to their children anymore; Carly, his hip, prickly bitch of a best friend who also managed to escape but only to Dallas, and with whom he hasn’t spoken since he left.

So Adrian is home for Christmas after three years away. Everything’s nice and Jesusy. The mom is sweet, the dad is a blue collar man’s man but nice enough. They ask about his job at the ad agency (it’s going great! in fact, he just got a promotion!); he offhandedly mentions some recurring bouts of stomach flu; they bring up Carly, who they still hope he’ll marry someday; Andrew confides to him about going to Madonna’s Virgin Tour concert, about their parents ripping down his Bryan Adams poster, and how local churches recently burned a bunch of pop and rock records.

We know this story.

We know this story and we already know the secrets everyone’s not telling and the silence is only making things worse. When Adrian and Carly reconnect by going to a gay bar (her idea) and her trying to jump his bones (he’s not yet out to her) and then calling him out on not calling or writing or anything, all he can say is that he wanted to make a fresh start in New York. Carly is pissed at this non-answer and kicks him out, leaving all his secrets still unsaid.

Sidenote: I both love and hate how much I related to Adrian in this scene. Though I was fortunate to grow up in not-small not-Texas Ottawa with a supportive family, I was acutely aware of the disconnect between the gay and straight worlds, and I knew in only one of those worlds could I find myself and be myself. And that was the nineties, how much worse would it have been a decade before? I also understand the urge to move far away, start over and never look back. Sad to say, I’m also not the best at staying in touch with old friends.

Come Christmas morning, Adrian’s gifts are lavish. A nice jacket for dad, a pretty cashmere shirt for mom, a big shopping spree at the local music store for Andrew, and a week at a Hawaii resort for the rest of the family. Not him, though, he’ll be too busy with his new responsibilities, but he wants everybody to have fun!

Secrets come out one by one. It turns out Adrian’s father knows pretty much everything—wanting to find out what his son was up to, he called up his job and then went to visit his neighbourhood. So now he knows that Adrian was fired from the ad agency, and saw him with his arms around another man. However—big stoic Texas man that he is—he wouldn’t even have said anything if Adrian hadn’t chanced on him drinking alone in the backyard. He was ready to take this secret to his grave, and makes Adrian swear never to tell his mother.

Adrian later reconciles with Carly and tells her everything. He can barely make ends meet since getting fired for being gay, he has AIDS, already buried several friends, doesn’t expect to see another Christmas and just wanted to see everybody one last time. In spite of his protestations that she wouldn’t be able to handle it, Carly promises to be there for him no matter what.

And his mother? It’s not clear what clues she picked up, but she seems equally on the ball. While dropping Adrian off at the airport, she gently tells him he can tell her… when he’s ready. Adrian briefly breaks down, but does not tell her anything.

The ending montage is accompanied by a voiceover of Adrian recording a message for Andrew. I don’t remember the details, but it’s a message of encouragement and hope: that he may grow up to feel different, but if he stays true to himself and nurtures his gifts, he’ll be okay.

So… some thoughts:

The movie is shot in black-and-white (the description specifying that it’s B&W 16mm); I wasn’t quite sure what to make of that stylistic choice. It’s how old-school home movies are shot, right? And this is nothing if not an intimate family movie. My first impression was that it heightened the disconnect between that era and this one; and, maybe it was part of the minimalist storytelling, trimming down some extraneous details to make the audience focus on the action and dialogue.

It only struck me later that at no point in the film do we see any of the main characters actually utter the words “gay” or “AIDS”. All the big revelations are done offscreen, between scene cuts. Even now they all keep dancing around each other, never telling the full truth. It’s okay, though. We already know.

And the big question: is this a hopeful film? It certainly doesn’t look like one on paper, but the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s full of hope shining through the darkness. All these secrets are just coming out, all these connections growing. But is it too late?

Adrian will die. We know his story, we know how it ends. Or do we? His story isn’t over yet: the ending montage shows him back in a New York club surrounded by friends, dancing and kissing a guy. Maybe he’ll be among those who make it. But even if he isn’t, we know he’s already made a difference. There are other stories just beginning, another queer generation just being born. We can’t change the past. But it’s never too late to change the future.

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