Thursday 27 December 2018

Homecoming: "1985"

The title of Yen Tan's indie drama 1985 is as date-specific as that of this year's Spanish sleeper hit Summer 1993. Protagonist Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) is a young New York ad exec who returns to his Fort Worth home for the holidays to find his clan waiting for him, same as they ever were: nurturing mom Eileen (Virginia Madsen) proffering plates of comfort food, gruff, God-fearing mechanic pop Dale (Michael Chiklis) trailing a Reagan/Bush sticker on the rear of his truck. Around them, other signs of red state kulturkampf: remnants of a poster of Bryan Adams (of all the musicians) ripped from a bedroom wall, talk of records being torched and "God's will", underlined when dad gifts son a monogrammed Holy Book on the morning of the big day. Reagan's great new day in America starts to look like a minefield that needs to be approached with caution; Adrian has a bombshell of his own to drop, one that will come as a shock to his folks, but should be no real outrage for anybody with an inkling of the lives some young men were living in New York, as elsewhere, in the mid-1980s.

It's a familiar narrative path, yet Tan dodges both the one scene you might expect from a film of this type, and the broader day-glo nostalgia that comes as standard with any film set in the year of "Into the Groove". For starters, cinematographer Hutch shoots in grainy, high-contrast black-and-white that keeps reminding us of the indie features being patched together around the time the film is set. (Early reviewers have drawn comparisons with Parting Glances and Longtime Companion, the first artistic responses to the era's crises, and - especially in his scenes with his spotty, sleepy-headed younger brother - Smith demonstrates the chiselled uprightness of the young Matt Dillon.) 1985 displays many of the virtues of those indies: it succeeds in telling a personal story on a small scale, with heart, intelligence and whatever resources it has to hand. There are limitations - Tan can't licence the Eighties anthems that, say, BumbleBee is awash with, and one or two confessional scenes play a little like off-Broadway theatre rather than cinema - yet even these turn the focus back on the conflicted people at the centre of the story. It's been very thoughtfully cast. One look at the unsmiling Chiklis, and we see why Adrian is happier to tell him lies about a promotion than the truth of who he is; one scene with the ever-sympathetic Madsen, and we know why our boy feels he can be himself around her. (It's a lesson in how placing good actors in supporting parts helps to shape our understanding of the lead character's worldview.) Don't go expecting it to break the bank or change the world, but it's smart counterprogramming at a time of glossily feelgood studio product, and its modesty works absolutely in its favour: it's sensitively assembled, unflashily atmospheric, and finally as touching for what's left unspoken as for what gets said.

1985 is now playing in selected cinemas.

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