NewFest Opens with “1985” — An Intimate Look at AIDS Before the Cocktail, Before AZT; Before Hope

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

1985 the movie

Writer/director Yen Tan dove into making 1985 intending to create an AIDS movie unlike any he’d ever seen. He succeeded.

Tan’s film (which opened the 30th annual NewFest film festival Wednesday night) is set in a quiet suburban Ft. Worth neighborhood a short drive from Dallas. His tale opens in 1985 — just as the disease is becoming a tsunami of infections, diagnoses and body counts. But don’t look for scenes of graveside services, ACT UP rioting in the streets, or quarantined hospital wards with skeletal men in the prime of their lives covered in lesions. No, this is what HIV/AIDS sent home from the epidemic’s front lines in the major metropolises of 1985: terrified men nearly unmoored from sanity slogging through grief for lost friends and the brutal certainty that they’re about to die just as most people are starting to live.

1985 was the also year I came out, and the year Rock Hudson died of AIDS.

I was a closeted journalist living in Austin, Texas (where writer/director Yen Tan now lives), working at The Austin American-Statesman as the drama critic for the city’s daily paper. And, while Tan’s 1985 does not dwell on AIDS or HIV as a topic, every frame of his film is shot through with longing for the past, fear of an unknown future and a present where family and friends kept unaware provide no comfort. Much of Tan’s rumination sends his camera roaming the family home, casting a reminiscing eye on well-worn clothes, family nicknacks and an omniscient pet whose panting evokes the ticking of an unseen clock.

For many of my gay friends, 1985 was the year AIDS arrived at our doorsteps. We’d watched it creep out of New York and San Francisco, Chicago and LA, only to appear in New Orleans. Atlanta. Houston and Dallas. And like Tan’s protagonist Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), we all wondered who we would turn to — who we could turn to — if a diagnosis cames back positive. Those of us lucky enough to be negative hunkered down in our homes and threw dinner parties as if we were just a few doors away from rising waters on the Titanic.

People were burning hospital sheets out of fear that sweat could pass the virus. Reports that mosquitos could pass HIV sent shock waves across the planet until they were debunked. On the few occasions I’d go to an Austin gay bar, I’d order a beer to avoid drinking out of a glass that might not have been washed thoroughly enough.

For Adrian, there’s his younger brother (Aidan Langford) — a budding theater buff, who his Dad worries is “getting soft” since quitting football; his long suffering Mom (in a tautly understated performance by Virginia Madsen), and his boorish blue-collar father (the always dependable Michael Chiklis) and his high-school galpal (Jamie Chung), all of whom know that the young man who’s returned home for the holidays is not the one they sent off to seek fame and fortune not so long ago.

Tan captures all of that, and anyone who lived through it will be re-stimulated by the experience. It’s a sensation akin to feeling a bone that was broken long ago and never properly set. A few survivors will chuckle at anachronisms like “let me hook you up” and “no worries” that didn’t enter the lexicon for decades to come. But take those laughs and enjoy them: They’re among the few you’ll have watching this family avoid saying what every one of them knows needs to be said.

Last modified: October 26, 2018