It’s fitting that the tagline on the poster for Chris Mason Johnson’s Test is just “San Francisco 1985.” Setting takes precedence from the start, the movie beginning with a series of title cards that situate the story within the early years of recent history’s greatest plague. The virus that causes AIDS has just been identified, and San Francisco is an empty ghost town, at least as Johnson frames it, through a series of eerie landscape shots. Rock Hudson is dying on the nightly news, but no one can bring themselves to admit that they know why. The front page headline of the local paper reads “Should Gays Be Quarantined?” And someone has spray-painted a homophobic message across an abandoned mattress in blood-red letters. A virus is spreading, but it’s the silence that kills.
Frankie (Scott Marlowe) is an understudy in a modern dance company, where his sexuality is put on display in a context that allows for a relative freedom of expression. A lanky kid with a sharp jaw and a blond bowl cut, Frankie is a talented performer, but he radiates a vulnerability that prevents him from achieving the authority the choreography demands. Todd (Matthew Risch) has no such problem. The diva of the company, he is handsome and strikingly in control of his body at a time when the city’s gay citizens are beginning to feel as though they’re no longer in control of their own. A romance begins to develop, one informed by the anxieties that are suffocating the community. Monogamy seems like the answer, but fear is making intimacy increasingly difficult to achieve.
Frankie eventually gets a chance to perform with the company, which is good because he’s only interesting when he’s dancing. If modern cinema has taught us anything, it’s that dancing and acting are often mutually exclusive talents, and Test follows in the dubious tradition of Center Stage by prioritizing the former at the expense of the latter. Marlowe is enormously expressive with his body, but his line delivery is as wooden as The Nutcracker. Checking IMDB isn’t necessary to confirm that this is his first screen performance, and though Frankie functions fine as a proxy for an entire generation, Johnson isn’t content to let his characters push the film further toward abstraction.
A comparatively sedate counterpoint to The Normal Heart, Test is most effective when it prioritizes mood over psychological melodrama (which is often), but Johnson’s approach is torn between Albert Camus and Brian De Palma. Certain sequences, such as the one where Frankie dances in an empty dressing room in perfect unison with the company members performing on stage, create a mellifluous harmony between the two modes. But the film falters when it looks beyond Frankie’s body and tries to get into his head. Clumsy metaphors and contrived attempts to articulate Frankie’s fears—especially as he awaits the results of the titular test—diminish the emotional authenticity engendered by Daniel Marks’ hyper-real cinematography and the film’s incisively curated soundtrack. (Martha And The Muffins, Laurie Anderson, and Cocteau Twins are just a few of the many featured artists).
Risch has more acting experience than his costar, and the swagger of his performance offsets a lot of the film’s amateurishness. If Test struggles to balance minds and bodies, it’s far more successful in conflating bodies with space. The shapeless narrative finds urgent new life during each of the film’s extended dance sequences, the lonesomeness of Frankie’s form contrasted with the perfect unison in which it moves with the other members of his company. Johnson cuts between close-ups and wides throughout the film, instilling such a constant awareness of where his characters are in their world that the drama he engineers for them feels largely redundant. As Frankie’s leg balletically swoops across the frame like the hand of a clock in reverse, Test is momentarily possessed with the same freedom of expression that the dance defiantly restores to its characters.