By Mike Dub
*Opening today (6/6) at the Presidio Theater in San Francisco, and at Rialto Cinemas in Berkeley and Sebastopol.
Chris Mason Johnson’s new drama about gay life, Test, takes place in 1985 but contains a decidedly 21st century sensibility. Absent from Johnson’s somewhat lightweight nostalgia piece, which examine life during the height of the AIDS epidemic, are any of the political inflammations or self-defining representations of ‘80s queer cinema. In their place, Johnson constructs an observational stage drama, a curiously digestible film about AIDS in which everyone is affected by the disease, but almost no one contracts it.
The story centers around Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a young gay modern dancer navigating through sexual and professional maturation. Frankie is a dough-eyed ingénue, soft and sensitive with a constantly furrowed brow suggesting he’s always just shy of comprehending something important about life. He suffers from the usual confusion of inexperienced young men, though he is also haunted by the cloud of AIDS. Through Frankie, we meet a series of underdefined supporting characters, including an abusively bitchy ballet director (“I don’t care who you fuck… dance like a man”), a timid roommate who is only there to be confused about his sexuality (a plotline whose true purpose seems to be to pad the 89-minute running time of the film), a middle-aged neighbor with a thing for younger guys, and even a homophobic cab driver, who when dropping Frankie off at a gay club sneers, “There’s nothing down here but human garbage.”
And then there’s Todd (Matthew Risch), Frankie’s frenemy and obvious love interest, a tall-dark-and-handsome roguish lout who is dangerously free from sexual hangups – when he is hard up for cash, he prostitutes himself to older men (and doesn’t wear condoms). In a film of sketchily drawn characters, Risch steals the movie, imbuing Todd with swarthy charm and a cocky grace which, in contrast to Frankie’s doleful pensiveness, sparks some energy into Test.
The film’s main energy source, though, comes in the form of several modern dance performances. Richly filmed, energetically edited, and beautifully choreographed by Sidra Bell, the musical numbers are where the film finds its distinctive voice. All the performers are excellent dancers, and Johnson approaches the sequences with an originality and flair that shows he is capable of constructing interesting, exciting sequences. A former dancer himself, Johnson’s acuity seems better suited to the abstraction of dance rather than literal storytelling.
Test takes place in 1985, shortly after the discovery of the first AIDS test, but, like many 20th century period pieces, the film’s sense of authenticity is overwhelmed by a cloying nod to the superficial differences of the past: Walkman tape decks, reel-to-reel stereos, boomboxes, answering machines, the jean-jacket, the birth of ecstasy, and, in a deeply irritating recurring bit, the tangled mass of telephone cords. Johnson is quick to smirk at the technological primitiveness of his childhood, but his observations offer little more than Remember the 80’s? mockery.
However, Test does illustrate some sense of the looming threat of the disease in 1985. Despite being rightfully paranoid about contracting the disease, Frankie does not stop having sex. His attraction to Todd is complicated by Todd’s promiscuous past; he has difficulty trying to figure out how to suggest wearing condoms to a partner; he studies his body constantly for signs of lesions. Every attraction is accompanied by the looming threat of death.
That being said, the film carries a certain sense of protectiveness toward its characters, allowing us to explore their fear, like their other problems, in a delicate, likable fashion. It’s a laudable attempt by Johnson to approach queer cinema in a relatively different approach, eschewing political messages as well as deathbed mourning. But while Test may be a new perspective, a warmhearted and hopeful film, it lacks energy and at times feels too easy a depiction of its subject. This calm, crowd-pleasing depiction of AIDS in the 1980s could only have occurred in a film that looks back on that era with warm-hearted nostalgia.