Much More Than Pass or Fail, by Rita Cannon
Chris Mason Johnson’s Test is a perfect example of the maxim that specificity is the soul of narrative. Set in San Francisco in 1985, and populated almost entirely by artistically inclined, sexually promiscuous gay men, Test is very firmly grounded in a specific time, place, and culture. The exquisite detail with which that setting is rendered makes the plot feel startlingly urgent, but it also sets the stage for a couple of wonderful character studies that are arguably the film’s greater achievement. The beats of Test‘s story could only happen in eighties San Francisco, but the feelings it evokes are universal.
Scott Marlowe stars as Frankie, an understudy with a modern dance company. He has an uneasy rivalry/friendship with Todd (Matthew Risch), a brash older dancer who’s considering starting to work as a prostitute, despite the fact that it’s the early years of the AIDS epidemic. One of the film’s most effective touches is the way the specter of AIDS haunts the edges of every scene. The disease is talked about several times – with more and more frequency as the story progresses – but even when it isn’t being openly discussed, it still takes up space in our protagonist’s mind. Frankie hears news reports on the radio about the development of the first test for AIDS, and sees headlines about whether gays should be quarantined, everywhere he goes. He comes up with excuses not to get tested. What if they really are quarantining people, and he ends up on a list? Even if he has it, there’s not much anyone can do, so what’s the point? In the end, Test becomes less about Frankie finding out if he has AIDS, and more about his process of coming to realize that getting tested is the right thing to do.
Test makes its period setting feel modern and real, but includes enough subtle details to remind us what a wide gulf there actually is between life in 1985 and now. Dramatic differences in thought (people still worried you could get AIDS from someone’s sweat) are juxtaposed with small differences in the mundane (the sound of a cassette tape rewinding during rehearsal, or Frankie’s excitement about buying a Walkman) to create a rich, affecting vision of the world these men live in. It’s an enlightening glimpse at a turning point in the history of an epidemic, as well as relatable story about trying to adjust to life as an adult. At its core, Test is a classic coming-of-age tale: a young person learning they’re not a kid anymore, that the world is scarier and more complicated then they thought, and that there are certain responsibilities they have to take on in order to deal with that.