The poster for Test, the new film from writer-director Chris Mason Johnson, wisely employs a simple tagline: “San Francisco,” it reads in plain black font. And next to that: “1985.” So evocative is that collection of words and numbers, it hardly needs a title to clue viewers in further. That its title is Test, though, adds another dimension, acting as both twist and spoiler. We know how this story ends because it still isn’t over. The fact that this film arrives in theaters in the same year that the New York Times runs an article on the HIV-prevention drug Truvada cements its relevance. The fear of contracting HIV is still very real for many gay men. San Francisco in the ‘80’s will never not mean something.
Director: Chris Mason Johnson
Producers: Chris Mason Johnson, Chris Martin
Writer: Chris Mason Johnson
Cinematographer: Daniel Marks
Editors: Christopher Branca, Chris Mason Johnson, Adam Raponi
Music: Ceiri Torjussen
Cast: Scott Marlowe, Matthew Risch, Kevin Clarke, Kristoffer Cusick, Damon Sperber, Sergio Benvindo, Madison Keesler, Andre Matthieu
Premiere: June 7, 2013 — Seattle International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 13, 2014
US Distributor: Variance Films
While speaking to the mores of a larger community, Test focuses its softly-lit gaze on Frankie (Scott Marlowe), the young understudy in a dance company. Where Frankie is tall, skinny, and capped with an unfortunate bowl haircut, the other men in his troupe exude sexual confidence, their five-o’clock shadows sprouting up by noon, at least. The director would never bark at them to “dance like a man!” during rehearsal the way he does to Frankie. When not in rehearsal, he walks the city, hands stuffed in his jean jacket pockets, ears sealed shut by Walkman headphones. Closed off to the world as he may be, he still can’t avoid homophobic headlines, “DIE AIDS FAGGOT” graffiti, or taxi drivers who wonder why he’d want to go to “that” part of town.
Through learning more about the new blood test for HIV and befriending brooding bad boy dancer Todd (Matthew Risch), Frankie begins to come to terms with his masculinity and community. He sees more and more that he’s not alone, that indeed there is a community in which he can seek help and camaraderie, that he doesn’t need to go to parties and shrivel in a corner: he’s allowed to dance and make out and take someone home and ask if they’ve been tested.
The unanticipated struggle in watching this film is, for all its smallness, it lacks a sense of intimacy. Johnson’s script and direction waffles between sinister drama and thoughtful, mumbly romance. The aesthetics—Instagrammy pastels and golden hour sunbeams—create a warmth that is then thrown off balance by stilted dialogue and a moody score. While I did appreciate that Johnson was at least making choices, the sum of them left me mostly cold, with Risch as the film’s saving grace and sole force of charisma.
In fact, his standout performance led me to wonder if perhaps Johnson picked the wrong subject for his story. Frankie’s timidity is so unspecific and all-consuming, I was surprised he didn’t jump at the sight of his own reflection. His fear of contracting the virus seems less like a tipping point than just another nail in his coffin of anxiety. I was more taken with the other men in his company, who were filled with contradiction, dolling themselves up for the stage and then inspecting their backs for sores in the dressing room mirrors. Risch’s Todd is a cad, but also contains a calm, affecting sadness in contrast with Frankie’s vague immaturity. If Frankie’s attitude, his total social disconnect, is a result of his specific fear, I wanted more context, more understanding of where his stems from.
Also distracting is Johnson’s underwritten dialogue. The people in this movie seemed to be borrowing some lines from afterschool specials. Not to mention the subplot of Frankie trying to stop a mouse infestation in his apartment—you know, much like one tries to stop a virus from entering the body. Such symbolism is heavyhanded and unnecessary.
Johnson’s smartest choice is in centering the film on dancers, a decision that allows for focus on the physical body and its interaction in space, with objects, and, most of all, with other bodies. His brief glimpes of used bandaids and hairbrushes do wonders in heightening tension, and lingering shots of male dancers stretching and sweating emphasize both the human body’s utility and beauty.
Test is an imperfect film. The symbolism is frustratingly overwrought, the character development is frustratingly undercooked. That all said, it offers moments of real beauty and intention, moments that would lead me to watch whatever Johnson’s next film may be. Test doesn't succeed on an artful level, but it succeeds on a political one, illuminating how and why art is crucial for coping with and combatting crisis.