There is a moment in the opening scenes of Test where the protagonist Frankie, played by professional dancer Scott Marlowe, warns a fellow dancer against eating cheddar cheese that contains artificial coloring. Todd, played with seductive intensity by Matthew Risch of HBO’s Looking, pointedly taunts him: “[you] shouldn’t be afraid of a little dye. Won’t kill you.” The sonic evocation here has to be intentional, especially considering the opening title cards, which remind audiences that we are in The Castro in San Francisco in 1985, and that many, many people will die in the coming years as the AIDS crisis intensifies.
Test isn’t the gutting, out-and-out tearjerker that I was expecting. It’s soft and subtle, sometimes brooding, occasionally sweet and playful with a purpose. It truly is Frankie’s film, and the choice to narrow the scope to focus only on the intimacies of his daily life is a smart one. Evidently, dancer Scott Marlowe had no acting experience prior to this movie, and this makes his performance all the more impressive. Even at his quietest and most perplexed, he is mesmerizing. At one point, when Frankie and Todd are high on ecstasy and climbing around tree limbs like wood nymphs, Frankie exclaims that ecstasy should in fact be called empathy. He’s just feeling so absolutely empathetic, and it’s hard for the viewer not to share that feeling.
Frankie and Todd, who both belong to the same dance company and are often in conflict, are a beautiful pair, and Marlow and Risch have a remarkable, crackling chemistry. Regardless of how the characters choose to define their relationship throughout the film, these men become more than the sum of their parts the moment they appear on screen together.
The dance sequences in the film are simply beautiful. Test displays a passion for and fascination with bodies, and rightly so. What a powerful way to suggest the coming ravages of AIDS—by showcasing the members of Frankie’s company at their peak, full of strength, vigor, and beauty.
While watching Frankie, Todd, and their colleagues on stage, I was reminded of something Sufjan Stevens recently said about ballet: “It is all about absence of self—there is no ego in it, even though there is extreme self-consciousness.” The performers in Test are modern dancers, not ballet dancers, and the choreography allows them to play in those spaces between self-consciousness, self-restraint, and self-expression. Bodies challenge one another, pushing and pulling, approaching and withdrawing, always pursuing potentialities.
San Francisco’s Castro District in 1985 is a world full of potential, and Test explores both the light and the dark sides of such a concept. There is the fluttering potential of a new romantic interest, an older man played by Kristoffer Cusick, coupled always with the more terrifying potential that anyone and everyone Frankie encounters, including himself, could be inflicted with this mysterious illness already.
One of the loveliest things about Test is how little the film relies on novelties and tricks. The direction is sly and smart, and like the dancers the film showcases, it puts in the work. There are some stunning outdoor shots, which takes expert advantage of the hazy-but-glowing San Francisco atmosphere. The film shines just as much in its frenetic dance sequences, the most charming perhaps being the near-surreal moments when Frankie injects dance into his regular behaviors. In one scene, he is backstage in street clothes while the performers are in front of the audience, and he can’t help but indulge his urge to dance along with them. This moment of intense, solitary passion is beautifully shot, and a true joy to observe.
There are moments when the film threatens to become a little too cute. Frankie’s apartment’s mouse infestation is a fairly insistent metaphor, but there’s something about Scott Marlowe’s performance that just sells it. There is goodness in him, an earnest, timid self-assuredness. And the filmmakers have made the excellent decision to give Frankie something of a literary habit; he quotes Shakespeare and shakes his head when Todd admits he doesn’t know what a metaphor is. So it’s almost as likely that Frankie himself is equally as aware as the audience of his metaphor-mice.
Test simmers, marked by the murky, threatening spectre of the AIDS epidemic, which is present even in the movie’s brightest and most jubilant moments. By film’s end, we find a sense of resolution, but the confusion and tragedy of the AIDS crisis is only just beginning. These characters will witness horrors in the coming years, and eventually some small, hard-fought victories. For now though, everything is, again, just another mysterious potentiality, and Test allows this strange and heavy time to, in all moments, feel utterly true.
Kayleigh Hughes is an editor, freelance writer, and overthinker. In addition to contributing to Loser City, Kayleigh occasionally writes for xoJane. Talk to her about literally anything–she doesn’t have that many friends–on twitter or via email.