We’ve all experienced it. Something is off about your body. You can’t precisely articulate the problem, but you know there is one. And you’re hesitant to get it checked out, because what if the doctor confirms all your darkest, most paranoid suspicions? It’s one of the scariest feelings in the world. Now imagine you’re a gay man, living during the onset of the AIDS crisis, and think about how much worse such a feeling would be.
That’s the scenario of Test, a film that lives in such a realm of supreme apprehension. At Outfest, the movie won two Grand Jury Awards: Outstanding U.S. Dramatic Feature and Outstanding Screenwriting for writer/director Christopher Mason Johnson. It’s certainly one of the most buzzed-about films to come out of the fest, and among the best of what I saw.
Scott Marlowe plays Frankie, a young gay man who’s part of an up-and-coming San Francisco dance company. The year is 1985, and the specter of a deadly disease that’s still highly misunderstood hangs over the community. A newspaper headline wonders whether gay men should be quarantined. Radio reports speculate on the nature of Rock Hudon’s undisclosed illness. It’s still unknown how AIDS can be effectively treated, but a test to see if one has the disease has just been approved. As he goes about his normal life, Frankie ponders taking the test, and all the implications both it and this disease has for him and his world.
Test is the kind of film that’s low on incident but high in atmosphere. Rich period details immerse the viewer in the setting, a culture that’s in the midst of a major upheaval. Like so many other gay people of the time, Frankie ran away from an intolerant home to remake his identity with others like him. But now he’s questioning many aspects of the life they live. It’s an evocative portrait of an in-between moment of history, one of the periods where no one is quite sure what’s going on and everything seems to be in question. More than anything else, the feeling reminded me of the collective daze of the initial post-9/11 months.
Marlowe is great, playing a quiet, full-body gnawing lip for most of the film. He has to perform on two levels, portraying Frankie both as he goes about his normal day and Frankie as constantly nagged by the part of his brain that insists on this one really important thing that must be done. Acting as his foil is Matthew Risch as Todd, a fellow dancer with a much more laid-back attitude. The two play off each other with fun zest, tinged with a hint of romantic interest.
While much of Test is a subtle buildup of tension, there’s terrific catharsis in the dance scenes. Here Marlowe, who’s a dancer making his acting debut, lets loose with mesmerizing, fluid grace. Even more impressive is that he injects just a hint of amateuriness into his movement, reflecting Frankie’s relative lack of stage experience. It’s in the performance that he’s able to forget the world for a while, and both watching him dance and hearing him talk about his interpretation of what it means sheds light on his character.
Shot with an aseptically crisp image at odds with its pathogen-minded subject matter, the movie favors a controlled, restrained look, conveying the wound-up preoccupations of its main character. Eventually, Test has an almost unbearable sense of inevitability around it. Frankie finally goes through with the AIDS test, while having reached that point one usually does of resigning oneself to the conclusion that the news will not be good. But the whole point of the film is what comes after the results, and how you live in a new reality.
That’s what all the apprehension points towards, and it foreshadows decades’ worth of social change. The film ends with Frankie in bed with a man, pondering the idea of more gays turning to monogamy, and unable to comprehend it. From the in-between moments of history, the future is always strange and unfamiliar. But it’s a different, less scary kind of unfamiliar from being unsure of where you stand in the moment.
One thought on “Outfest Review: ‘Test’”
Pingback: Dan Schindel: Critic Person