Test: Outfest Review

Love story of two dancers in the early days of AIDS hits many grace notes.

Intriguing time capsule, set in San Francisco in 1985, focuses on the wary romance of two dancers.

In the opening scene of Test, a movie playing at this year’s Outfest, two young male dancers at a party engage in some hostile banter. Frankie (Scott Marlowe) is a quiet, slightly prissy young man who objects to the brazen sexual exploits of the more masculine, devil-may-care Todd (Matthew Risch). As they spar, it isn’t hard to guess that these two are meant for each other. This predictability isn’t meant as a criticism of the movie. After all, when Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell trade barbs in the opening scene of Howard HawksHis Girl Friday, we know that their antagonism masks a deep attraction. Hawks directed many of these squabbling love stories, and I couldn’t help thinking that if he were alive today and responsive to changing sexual mores, he might well be tickled by the romantic dynamic of Test. The film is an appealing variation on a popular genre, and if it’s a little too low-key to attract a mainstream audience, it marks a promising step forward for the writer-director, Chris Mason Johnson (who directed a less successful earlier film, The New Twenty).

The romance is only one part of this ambitious yet unpretentious film. It is set in San Francisco in 1985 and captures the fear raging through the gay community as the AIDS epidemic begins to devastate a lot of people’s lives. The HIV test has just been introduced, and the characters are at first hesitant to be tested because of paranoia surrounding this misunderstood disease. Newspaper headlines talk about the possibility of quarantining HIV-positive men, and when a female dancer notices that her bare-chested male partner is sweating, she asks him to dry himself off before resuming their rehearsal. Gay men on the dating circuit also face new challenges. After years of accepting promiscuity as the new normal, they have to rewrite the rules for their sexual and romantic encounters.

Although the film’s budget was obviously low, it does find clever touches to evoke the era. As Frankie struggles with the tangled cord on his 1980s-style telephone, we’re reminded of some technical challenges that have now vanished, only to be replaced by others. Johnson, a former dancer himself, obviously gave a lot of thought to filming the dance scenes, and they are beautifully shot. The lighting and the eloquent use of space highlight Sidra Bell’s choreography effectively.

Both of the leads have dance experience. Marlowe has worked primarily as a dancer, but he acquits himself well in the dramatic scenes. Risch, who has impressive Broadway credits in both musicals and dramas, has a warm masculine presence. The only problem with the film is that it’s narratively undernourished. It takes almost the entire movie for the two leads to get together, and Frankie’s other flings en route to true romance aren’t terribly interesting. Johnson obviously didn’t want to shortchange the many dance scenes, but he might have devoted more energy and imagination to the plot and supporting characters. Nevertheless, this is a vibrant period piece with a genuinely likable love story at the center of the action.

Cast: Scott Marlowe, Matthew Risch, Kristoffer Cusick, Katherine Wells, Damon Sperber, Kevin Clarke, Evan Boomer

Director-screenwriter: Chris Mason Johnson

Producers: Chris Mason Johnson, Chris Martin

Executive producers: Elizabeth Pang Fullerton, Jenni Olson, Ian Reinhard

Director of photography: Daniel Marks

Production designer: Rollin Hunt

Music: Ceiri Torjussen

Costume designer: Kristen McCullough

Editors: Christopher Branca, Chris Mason Johnson

No rating, 89 minutes