1985

*****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

1985
"What is not said is every bit as important as what is, and we are invited to observe the numerous ways in which the characters communicate without words."

For many people, the Christmas period is the most important time of year to be with family, but the very pressure this creates can make it difficult to enjoy. Tensions simmer as people with very different worldviews try hard to get along, anxious not to spoil the mood or interrupt the specific rituals that each family develops. 1985 depicts one such Christmas, but what matters here is not the awkwardness between one closeted gay man and his strict Christian parents - it's the love that is every bit as plain between them, making their differences hurt more but also inspiring them to try and connect is spite of everything.

There's little in the way of direct confrontation in Yen Tan's quiet, lyrical film, which shares a central character with his short of the same name. What is not said is every bit as important as what is, and we are invited to observe the numerous ways in which the characters communicate without words. It's shot in a grainy black and white which allows make-up artist Melissa McFadyen more leeway to emphasise Cory Michael Smith's thinness, prompting viewers to wonder from the start about his health and the precise nature of the events back in his adopted home, New York City, that lead him to cry sometimes when he's alone. It also positions the story as a piece of history - distant enough now, in terms of the specific issues it deal with, for reflection and sadness, not just overwhelming anger and grief.

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Of course, homophobia and the specific problems for young LGBT people created by the religious culture in parts of America remain a problem today. Smith himself chose to remain in the closet in his professional life during the early years of his career, and it is to be hoped that casting directors won't change their attitude to him now that he's come out; all else aside, his performance here is stunning. Originally trained for the stage, he brings the kind of intensity that would electrify a theatre audience but it delivers it in that quiet, intimate way to which cinema is so well suited. As his father, Michael Chiklis (who previously played his boss in Gotham) gets the chance to break with type and show what he can do in a restrained role, but it's Virginia Madsen as the mother who is a revelation. She has terrific chemistry with Smith and she understands exactly what is required of a supporting actor, bringing depth and nuance to the story in a way that is all the more powerful because she never pushes herself to the fore. Although she is one of the people he has been closest to, she is now a background player in her son's life, shut out of its central drama by his very protectiveness.

The plot is complicated by the presence of a younger son (Aidan Langford) who still doesn't understand why his big brother moved away but who is already showing signs that he, too, may need to do so in time. There's also a subplot involving Carly (Jamie Chung), our hero's childhood friend and the one his mother still evidently hopes he will marry. The mixture of romantic tension and resentment between them hints at a complicated past but she is still the only local he trusts enough to really talk to, giving viewers a chance to learn more directly about what's happening in his life, but there is little in the way of crude exposition - every explanation takes effort, the weight of childhood beliefs still significant internally as well as externally.

Many films have explored these themes with anger. Though there is a deep sense of injustice here, anger is the last thing that anybody wants. The script condemns no-one and finds hope in the way that all of its characters recognise the humanity of the others. The result is a thoughtful, intelligent and ultimately heartbreaking film reflecting on a time when that felt all too rare.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2018
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1985 packshot
A closeted gay man spends Christmas with his strict Christian family.

Festivals:

Karlovy 2018

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