The last few years have seen a steady drip of affecting, emotionally complex films centering on the queer experience, among them Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, and Carol. These films, however, have often eschewed tackling, head-on, the impact and legacy of HIV/AIDS. The disconnect is understandable. Even without a cure, healthcare for most people living with HIV/AIDS has dramatically improved, and PrEP gives younger generations a not-false-but-fallible sense of security, so that as subject matter, the epidemic may not feel as urgent; and then there’s the desire and the ability to tell different stories since the LGBTQ community is no longer solely defined by tragedy. Last year’s French offering BPM and Ryan Murphy’s 2014 HBO production The Normal Heart are exceptions to the rule, focusing on the activism and politics of the AIDS crisis and the resulting effects on the gay community. In his upcoming drama, 1985, Yen Tan narrows the scope to a small town in Texas and a family coming to grips with their son’s life and imminent death.
Known for roles in Gotham and the aforementioned Carol, Cory Michael Smith stars as Adrian, the prodigal eldest son of Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis. Following the death of his lover to AIDS complications, and ill with the disease himself, Adrian returns home for the holidays to say goodbye to his family. While there, he reconnects with his old friend Carly (Jamie Chung) and his younger, and possibly gay, brother Andrew (Aidan Langford).
The film’s aesthetic choice not only speaks to the time period, offering a nostalgic take on the mid-80s, but according to Smith, also reflects the culture at the time.
“[It’s] the idea that the issue of AIDS was a black-and-white issue and sexuality was a black-and-white issue: it was good or evil, a dead-or-alive kind of thing,” Smith, who identifies as queer, tells Entertainment Weekly. “In a world now where sexuality is being seen more on a spectrum, which is wonderful, this takes us to a time when things weren’t so fluid, or your individuality was relegated to this or that.”
Tan adapted 1985 from a 2016 short of the same name and was inspired by his post-college days working at a viatical settlement firm. Many of his clients were older gay men living with HIV or AIDS who needed to sell their life insurance policies to friends and estranged family. According to The Daily Beast, which interviewed Tan and Smith shortly after 1985’s premiere at SXSW:
By the nature of the job, men revealed details about the relationships they had—or more often, didn’t have—with their families. Often, Tan felt confused. Why would this gay man whom his family disowned still name his father as his beneficiary? And then there was one patient whose offhand comment stuck with him, two decades later, planting the seed from which 1985 eventually grew: “The saddest thing is when the family doesn’t know.”
Though his family handled his coming-out with “a lot of love,” Smith, with his Middle-American roots (he’s from Ohio), could identify on a certain level with his character Adrian. Making 1985, then, felt “special” because he was telling a story that felt “closer to home.” And though the film chronicles one of the most traumatic moments in American history, and certainly for the LGBTQ community, he sees 1985 as more hopeful than anything.
“There’s something about knowing there are so many people’s lives that were cut short and lost,” Smith tells EW, “but so many of these people found a community where they, in a short period of time, were able to live very freely and experience love and a connection with people they maybe thought was otherwise unavailable to them. I think there’s an inherent beauty inside of this thing that can kind of be construed as tragic. I also think this film is a bit of an elegy to these people and trying to find positivity in the experience of love.”
1985 hits theaters in limited release on October 26. Check out the trailer below: