On Thursday, September 11th, Outflix 2014 closes with Test, the second feature from San Francisco writer/director Chris Mason Johnson. In 2014, 30 years into the AIDS epidemic, the disease has been demystified. Even if it's not curable, there are reasonably effective treatments available, and the cause and methods of prevention are well known. But, as Test reminds us, the world of 1985 was very different. The disease had only been described in the scientific literature in 1981, and when it burst into public consciousness it caused a wave of anti-gay hysteria.
Frankie (Scott Marlowe) is a struggling gay dancer who lives in San Francisco at the height of the AIDS panic. Since there was much early confusion as to how the disease was spread, homosexuals had yet another stigma to deal with. Frankie's neighbors who know he is gay give him a wide berth on the street. At rehearsals, straight dancers are afraid to come into contact with the sweat of gay dancers. Headlines ask, "Should Gays Be Quarantined?" Among Frankie's gay friends, there is confusion and suspicion. Some, like Bill (Kevin Clark), Frankie's fellow dancer, carry on as usual, even hustling on the side to make ends meet. But Frankie, like most people, is confused and scared. His feelings become even more complicated when he strikes up a relationship with his neighbor Walt (Kristoffer Cusick), and when the first HIV blood test becomes available, he is torn between the impulse to be safe and the horror that he might receive a death sentence.
Test is at its best when director Johnson goes atmospheric, such as the exceptionally photographed and choreographed dance sequences. Marlowe is an excellent dancer and fine, square-jawed eye candy. Scenes when he strolls pensively through the San Francisco streets listening to '80s gems by Bronski Beat, Laurie Anderson, and Memphis' own Calculated X, work great to set the mood of paranoia and uncertainty. But the first-time actor's stiffness becomes apparent in scenes with people with more extensive resumes, such as his forays into San Francisco's legendary gay bar scene. But overall, the film's combination of backstage drama and history lesson makes for a compelling package.