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TEST – Review
July 14, 2014
If getting a film made is already a difficult task, try to imagine what it’s like for queer cinema. Even if things miraculously come together and you have a film, you still need to find a way to reach an audience and there’s no denying you always hope to attract a wider spectrum than just the niche your film is apparently made for. That’s why telling a story that’s more specific and set in a world that’s interesting to explore can only help your cause and pull you out of the average dramatic coming out story. Test is an accomplished cinematic achievement exactly because it focuses on the interesting world of a modern dance company and is set in 1985 San Francisco during the terrifying HIV epidemic, though fear not, this isn’t one of those overly depressing stories.
It seems like recently there’s been a renaissance of films set during the 80s AIDS crisis with titles like How To Survive A Plague, Dallas Buyers Club and HBO’s A Normal Heart. I’ve talked about it among other things with Test’s promising writer/director Chris Mason Johnson when the film screened at the BFI Flare, London LGBT Festival back in March. My interview will appear on Candid’s film page in a couple of weeks. However, this delicate period in our history is not really the heart of the film. It simply provides the backdrop for the story and surely contributes to the symbolism implied in the film’s title. Frankie (Scott Marlowe), the protagonist, is an understudy in a modern dance company made of a group of muscular men and where his skinny (albeit agile) self finds it hard to fit in, especially when during rehearsals he even gets picked on by the choreographer.
When one of the dancers gets injured Frankie is called in to replace him during the show and he needs to overcome his self-doubt in order to succeed. But that’s not the only test he has to face during the film. As he navigates the gay dating scene, trying to figure out what he really wants out of it, the menace of HIV becomes more and more palpable and society’s scorn gets more vicious with the illness being hailed as the righteous punishment for the gay lifestyle. So once a new a blood test that can detect the virus is made available to the public, Frankie ponders whether or not to take it, given the implications of his current love life. Speaking of which, Frankie makes friends with Todd (Matthew Risch), the hunky and sarcastic veteran dancer within the company. He keeps teasing the naïve and timid Frankie but the banter between the two soon betrays an undeniable attraction that will turn into Frankie’s final test, that of whether or not he’s ready to commit to a relationship.
It’s not hard to believe that talented filmmaker Chris Mason Johnson began his career as a dancer. He depicts this world with clear passion and vividness and he even recruited acclaimed US choreographer Sidra Bell to stage the sumptuous dance sequences. But Johnson’s attention to detail is not limited to the dance side of things. He thoroughly researched the era, offering quite a believable portrayal of San Francisco in the mid 80s thanks to stylish costume and production design, an atmospheric cinematography and a smart script that tells the story visually rather than through blurby dialogue.
An exquisite piece of filmmaking, TEST is a delicate and nuanced look at a life-changing period not just in gay history but human history: a fascinating character study, superbly acted by its two leads and pregnant with rich themes that will leave you with lots of pondering to do. Scott Marlowe, a professional dancer, gives an impressive debut performance as Frankie, perfectly internalizing his character’s emotions whereas brilliant theatre and screen actor Matthew Risch is magnetic as Tood, oozing with charisma. Winner of best film and best screenplay at Outfest and having screened at other prestigious festivals such as the Berlinale, Test is the kind of gay cinema we should see more of.
Test is available on VOD on July 14th and on DVD on July 28th.
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor