“In the early years of the AIDS epidemic, it remained unclear what caused the disease or how it was transmitted. By 1985 the virus that causes AIDS was identified and the first blood test was developed.”
That blunt, sterile introduction sets the scene for what follows in Chris Mason Johnson’s Test: an unsentimental but well-crafted look at San Francisco in 1985, during the early days of an epidemic that was just beginning to be understood. It’s a compelling companion piece to HBO’s recent feature adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, though Johnson’s film approaches similar themes and storylines with more intimacy, rewarding viewers who are willing to sit through a slack middle act and wait for the film to return to its early momentum.
Test follows Frankie (Scott Marlowe), a modern dancer plagued by concerns large and small, from his stalled-out career to a possible mouse infestation in his apartment to the dye that makes cheddar cheese look so orange. The only thing that really matters, though, is the lingering worry that he’s infected with the AIDS virus, and his hypochondria informs all his actions—even when he appears overcome by lust in one of the film’s many realistically staged sex scenes. He’s a worrier, but his worst worry is justified, and Test builds towards the inevitable reveal of Frankie’s titular test results.
Frankie isn’t alone in his concerns. The AIDS epidemic makes everyone seem suspect and worrisome to the misinformed, from strangers on the street who sneer at Frankie to a female dancer in his own company, who balks at her gay partner sweating on her during rehearsal. Newspaper and magazine covers appear throughout the film, splashed with headlines about quarantines and fears, and homophobic slurs pepper the graffiti around the city.
Test’s numerous dance scenes are beautifully framed and energetically shot by cinematographer Daniel Marks, and Sidra Bell’s bold choreography is bolstered by convincing physical performances from the entire cast, particularly Marlowe. The film is Marlowe’s acting debut, and the professionally trained dancer stumbles whenever Frankie is away from the rehearsal space. Marlowe’s flat, disengaged line-readings diminish his attractiveness in the first two acts of the film, even as other characters are continually drawn to him.
One of those other characters is Todd (Matthew Risch), a bawdy dancer from Frankie’s company whose devil-may-care attitude makes Frankie look uptight and uninteresting by comparison. Frankie and Todd’s personalities clash from the start, and their verbal sparring doesn’t leave much leeway for actual affection or professional respect. Yet pressures at work—like a smirking dance director who chides Frankie for his lack of rehearsal socks and his inability to “dance like a man”—help push them together, and Todd reveals a sensitivity that’s appealing to Frankie and the audience. Test takes too long to get to that possible romance, however, and Risch, the cast’s most electric actor, is stuck with a limiting supporting role.
The film’s 1980s trappings aren’t cloying or over-the-top; there isn’t a parachute pant or neon scrunchie to be found, and the soundtrack is filled with eclectic tracks by Klaus Nomi, Romeo Void, and Martha And The Muffins. Frankie’s newly purchased Walkman, a fun detail that dates the film appropriately, provides much of the soundtrack for him and the audience alike. But Test is occasionally overwhelmed with metaphors that don’t stick, from a plate depicting a “sad boy” that Frankie steals from a lover to frequent shots of a looming San Francisco radio tower clearly meant to telegraph something, though it’s never clear what.
The film’s final act is its best: It’s a moving, rewarding conclusion that sees Frankie’s various problems right themselves without feeling forced or tidy. Marlowe’s previously restrained performance blossoms into something genuinely joyous, though the lightness he brings to Frankie would have better served the film much earlier in the narrative. Test is a slow burn that builds to an impressive end, although the rest of film is in need of that same kind of forward-driving energy.