A timid San Francisco dancer in 1985 copes with misinformation and fear sparked by the growing AIDS crisis in sophomore helmer Chris Mason Johnson’s underwhelming “Test.” Thanks to the director’s credentials as a dancer, the performance scenes with the modern dance company are a highlight, and the issues raised, including intimacy, scapegoating, what is “manly,” and of course AIDS, are salutary reminders of an era that feels a lifetime away, even if the concerns remain omnipresent. However, tonal flatness and a colorless lead earn “Test” a “B” grade, although gay fests won’t mind, and a release on the pink circuit is secure.
Frankie (newcomer Scott Marlowe, looking like a more willowy Octavian) is a junior member of a dance troupe, seemingly fated to remain in the wings as the understudy. Nervous and insecure, he’s preoccupied with the general paranoia surrounding AIDS at a time when those with the disease were shunned, and talk of quarantine didn’t seem all that impossible. His darker, seductive friend, Todd (Matthew Risch, the best actor here), blithely hides such concerns, teasing Frankie with his exploits. Even in the dance world though, fear is rife: Molly (Katherine Wells) is visibly disturbed by Todd’s sweat during rehearsal, silently wondering if AIDS can be transmitted via pores.
Frankie’s new Walkman allows him to seek shelter in his own world (and also allows Mason Johnson to toss in ’80s music at regular intervals). Like everyone else, he checks his body for possible sarcomas, especially following sex with Walt (Kristoffer Cusick). When the HIV test is offered, Frankie decides to risk knowing the truth, but the two-week wait time for results is a nerve-wracking period, especially when Walt tells him his own results came back positive.
Many of the period concerns — the novelty of condoms for gay men, the fortnight wait for test results, the atmosphere of increased homophobia and dread in the general culture — feel like a retread of other, better pics. Viewers who lived through those days will either experience a frisson of remembrance or shrug it off, while younger viewers may not quite get the level of fear that gripped the community. More novel is the way Mason Johnson presents the insular dance community, where rivalry is less of an issue than how “masculine” one is perceived. Ballet master Jerry (the helmer) scolds the semi-ephebic Frankie, “Dance like a fucking man!” — exposing a level of self-hatred generally unacknowledged in a world presumed to be more at peace with its sexuality.
Marlowe’s background as a dancer makes him right physically for the role, and there’s nothing wrong per se with his acting, yet he fails to hold the screen in the same way as Broadway thesp Risch, who has a charisma that gives “Test” much needed energy. The pic’s focus is sharper than that of Mason Johnson’s debut, “The New Twenty,” though certain minor strands, like a metaphoric mouse subtheme, and too-frequent shots of an uninteresting section of Frisco’s skyline, need tightening. For the most part, the production design doesn’t feel forced (apart from a tired visual gag about a tangled phone cord), and period music from Romeo Void, Laurie Anderson, the Cocteau Twins, etc., add some flavor despite crying out for more incisive use. Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy,” heard twice, offers a happy reminder of just how influential that song and album (and jacket sleeve) were at the time.