The year is 1985 and some time ago Adrian (Cory Michael Smith) left his home in Texas behind to start again in New York City, finding the smalltown life too oppressive, especially with a deeply conservative father, Dale (Michael Chiklis), calling the shots in the family household. But now for reasons he is keeping to himself, Adrian is returning for Christmas to be with his family, and though he doesn't believe they know why, he is keeping chipper when he meets them off the plane, aware there is an awkwardness between them that nobody is acknowledging. Maybe he can spend a quiet week with his folks and his troubled little brother Andrew (Aidan Langford), and all will be well...
This was a film with a simple story, plainly told, but with seismic resonances, especially for anyone who has had to keep a secret about themselves that isn't really bad, but will not be welcomed even by those who are supposed to know them best. Not to mince words, but coming out as gay is not always the easiest thing in the world, and in the time this film depicts, there was a lot less tolerance than there is now (and even now there's not exactly universal understanding), a lot of that down to the spectre of AIDS which was blighting the gay community and spreading fear amongst not merely them, but the heterosexual society who regarded the fatal disease as a "gay plague".
The paranoia of those dark days was not soft-pedalled by director Yen Tan's film, but neither was it some overbearing polemic against the injustice of the situation back then. He was a lot more subtle, indeed for much of the running time we are only aware that Adrian is gay thanks to us being more aware of the signals he is giving off than the other characters in the story - or so he prefers to think. This could have lapsed into clichés, the smalltown boy premise, the stern father, the mother he's that bit too close to, the little brother who seems to be taking the same path as him (forsaking sports for the theatre class - apparently a sure indication!), but the humanity defused them.
Thankfully, this was not one of those gay dramas where the lead felt very sorry for themselves and it all became very cloying and self-consciously noble, Yen had gone in a different direction from that. Shooting in grainy black and white 16mm thanks to co-writer, co-editor and cinematographer Hutch (just Hutch) that made this look like a series of newsprint pictures sprung to life, there was a mood of melancholy that many a lesser Christmas movie might have soured into a shouting match across the turkey carving. But 1985 was too compassionate for that: even the supposedly bigoted, ultra-religious dad surprises you, not for eschewing any prejudice but for accepting his son for what he is, a far more Christian approach than any of the preachers we occasionally hear would ever consider as acceptable.
This was delicately observed from a small but excellent cast, Smith proving himself more than able to carry a lead role, and demonstrating his breakthrough role as The Riddler on TV's Gotham was no fluke: he had complete control over his characters, from the over-the-top comic book baddie to a far more authentic portrayal of a person you had no trouble believing existed back then. Madsen and Chiklis too conveyed the unadventurous couple who had no apparent understanding of what their son was going through as his friends dropped around him, with great perception, especially when it came to the latter scenes where we realised, as did Adrian, they knew what was happening to him, but couldn’t quite broach the subject in the quietly tragic manner many would recognise from their own families. Lastly, Jamie Chung as Adrian's old friend who thinks he wants to rekindle a romance then is hurt when she is ostensibly rejected was another reason this was such a finely tuned drama, no, it wasn't anything big and flashy, but stick with it and it was very affecting. Also: justice for Freddy's Revenge! Music by Curtis Heath.