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.

Sidenote: I really, really 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.

Carly is pissed at this non-answer and kicks him out, leaving all his secrets still unsaid.

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 resort in Hawaii 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 everyone 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. We can’t change the past. But it’s never too late to change the future.

My 2018 Queer Film Fest schedule

Thursday August 9

It’s the opening gala, so there’s only one movie. A poignant drama set in the height of the AIDS crisis? Yep, I’ll take it.

Final choice: 1985

Friday August 10

1985 is playing again at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts that night, so let’s look at International Village. A creepy-weird family drama and a creepy-weird story of stalking and obsession? Yeah, why not.

Final choice: Octavio is Dead! and The Year I Lost My Mind.

Saturday August 11

I have other plans that night, so no movies. *sadface*

Sunday August 12

EITHER a documentary about Canada’s not-very-long-ago gay witch hunt which I’ll probably miss because of volleyball, a dramedy about dreams and drag in small-town Alaska, and an all-women’s comedy about crappy jobs and tech startups (International Village),

OR a showcase of Indigenous music on the theme of family, and local story tellers talking about their creative roots and inspirations (SFU GoldCorp).

The GoldCorp shows may be happening too soon anyway, so let’s go for International Village!

Final choice: The Fruit Machine, Alaska is a Drag, and Freelancers Anonymous

Monday August 13

EITHER two movies about avant-garde queer art scenes in NY and LA,

OR a showcase of local LGBTQ2S+ filmmakers and activists, and a documentary on San Francisco’s Imperial Council.

Hmm… I think I’m in the mood for some uplifting present and inspirational history.

Final choice: Troublemakers 3.0 and 50 Years of Fabulous.

Tuesday August 14

EITHER two erotic gay romance movies,

OR a two-part documentary on two young West Bengali girls who committed suicide, their past and never-to-happen future.

Final choice: tentatively, Al Berto and A Moment in the Reeds.

Wednesday August 15

EITHER the centrepiece gala, a romantic lesbian dramedy with themes of art, activism and racism,

OR another showing of A Moment in the Reeds followed by a documentary on a Black trans Brazilian singer.

Final choice: the centrepiece show, White Rabbit.

Thursday August 16

EITHER a documentary on Jennifer Laude, a Filipina trans woman killed by a US Marine in 2014, and what looks like a musical about queer / trans youth in New York,

OR a retrospective on dyke cinema followed by a repeat of White Rabbit.

I mean, no point in repeating myself, right?

Final choice: Call Her Ganda and Saturday Church.

Friday August 17

EITHER a brand new showcase of trans, genderqueer and nonbinary stories, then a series of shorts centring trans women, then a lesbian romantic comedy (SFU GoldCorp)

OR a history of the Vancouver Men’s Chorus (yay!) followed The Coast Is Queer (York Theatre).

Now, I never miss The Coast Is Queer, so unfortunately I’ll have to miss The Coast is Genderqueer. Boo.

Final choice: We Are The Vancouver Men’s Chorus and The Coast Is Queer.

Saturday August 18

EITHER a documentary on the genderfluid Leitis of Tonga; the award-winning and atmospheric story of an Armenian trans man; and a gay Buddhist love story,

OR a showcase of Indigiqueer shorts and a look at life and love in Toronto’s indigenous communities.

For some reason I’m drawn to the moody, spiritual Buddhist love story. Also, the first documentary is done by the same people behind Kumu Hina, which I very much enjoyed.

Final choice: tentatively, Leitis in Waiting, Apricot Groves and Malila: The Farewell Flower.

Sunday August 19

Just the Closing Gala, which is absolutely not a happy-happy feel-good story.

Final choice: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

My 2017 Queer Film Festival schedule

It’s that time of year again! Let’s see what’s out there…

Thursday August 10

The opening gala, so there’s only one choice. It looks wonderful, though: dying indigenous languages, magical realism, and what looks like a deep meditation on cultures and communication? Yes please. Oh, and apparently there’s a long-lost love story between two guys, which makes this a queer film.

Final choice: I Dream In Another Language / SueƱo en otro idioma

Friday August 11

Either gay horror and murder mysteries, or touching lesbian personal dramas. Hmm… Yeah, let’s go for the horror. When will I get another chance to see a zombie apocalypse in a bathhouse?

Final choice: B&B and DTF: Down To Fright

Saturday August 12

I’ve got plans that night, but I could catch an early show, one of the lesbian dramas I missed Friday. Don’t know if I’ll have time, that would cut into my Taiji. But we’ll see.

Final choice (maybe): Signature Move

Sunday August 13

At first I hadn’t planned anything for Sunday. Maybe because nothing really caught my eye, or I just wanted to pace myself… but I do have choices. Seems to be a lot of biographies and documentaries. Half focused on North America (and one just on Vancouver), half international. As interesting as some of these international stories are, I’m in the mood for something local.

Final choice: Troublemakers 2.0

Monday August 14

Either a look at LGBT communities and what anchors them, or a lot of weird sexy gay dramas. I’m feeling the former more.

Final choice: Stay Gold, March Forward and Jewel’s Catch One

Tuesday August 15

Either two sexy gay love stories, or a double-bill of Indigenous femme stories. I had settled on the early sexy gay love show (again, pacing myself)… but now I’m not so sure. Though now I’m thinking I may want to take in some queer First Nations culture.

Final choice (tentative): Center Of My World / Die Mitte der Welt

Wednesday August 16

The centrepiece gala, a documentary on the incarceration and aftermath of Black trans woman CeCe McDonald.

Final choice: Free CeCe!

Thursday August 17

Either a lot of short stories exploring intersectional queer identities, or a couple of bittersweet lesbian love stories. Originally I didn’t put down anything for Thursday. Do I have other plans? I don’t even remember. But either way, I think I’ll pass on the lesbian drama.

Final choice: The Migrant Mixtape

Friday August 18

Okay, you all know I’ll seeing The Coast Is Queer, right? And hey, the late show in that theatre is a biopic of one of the leaders of the Stonewall rebellion.

Final choice: The Coast Is Queer and The Death & Life of Marsha P. Johnson

Saturday August 19

I’ve got plans that night too! But, I think I’ll catch an early-early show, which would have been the late show on Thursday. It’s too bad, I really enjoyed Kumu Hina a couple years ago when it was just a short film, and would have liked to see the feature-length version.

Final choice: Taxi Stories

Sunday August 20

There’s only the ending gala to see. Fortunately it looks fun!

Final choice: Handsome Devil