From the moment we first see Frankie (Scott Marlowe) stretching on his bed, it’s clear that Test, the second feature from writer-director Chris Mason Johnson, seeks to establish sensuality as its primary theme, with touch, movement, and intimacy comprising the bulk of such expression. Mason Johnson shoots Frankie head-on, not shying away from the entirety of his body as it elongates across the wide frame. Set in San Francisco of 1985, the film follows Frankie, an understudy at a contemporary dance company, where he takes digs from veteran dancer Todd (Matthew Risch) for looking “like a little boy” and his instructor for “not dancing like a man.” These are less homophobic accusations than questions of strength and force, something Frankie’s pale, thin body doesn’t outwardly project. In his apartment, Frankie hunts a mouse that scurries around. The metaphor, if a little forced, is clear, positioning Frankie’s anxieties about his own body as purely physical, rather than explicitly tied to his homosexuality.
While such a metaphor could become misplaced in other hands, Mason Johnson uses it as a precept for directing Frankie’s concerns amid the introduction of an HIV test, which looms over the film’s proceedings before becoming its primary concern in the final third. Early in the film, news broadcasts report confusion over Rock Hudson’s AIDS diagnosis and a cutaway to The Guardian leads with a headline asking: “Should Gays Be Quarantined?” Soon after, Todd’s female dance partner asks him to dry off, fearing transmission of the virus through sweat. These instances are less focal points than supplemental reinforcements of sensual engagement as jouissance, where pleasure and pain become confused, potentially leading to a divided self. That’s the case for Frankie, who’s resolute in his sexuality, but becomes progressively panic-stricken about the virus, checking himself in the mirror for lesions and asking a partner to wear a condom, even though the idea seems “antiquated.” Mason Johnson plays these scenes as explication for Frankie’s vulnerability, rather than reveling in various ignorances or ironies as a means to offer an ex-post-facto cautionary tale of “safe sex” neglect.
Mason Johnson is thankfully dedicated to using the film’s setting not as history lesson, but spiritual guide to Frankie’s complex desires for love, happiness, dance, and sex. And the filmmaker has made a real discovery in Marlowe, whose boyish good looks and deep voice lend Frankie a gravitas that’s effective in scenes both minor and complex, but especially the latter, such as when Frankie and Todd banter about the possibility of having sex for money. Unlike HBO’s Looking, which plays one character’s $220-an-hour prospect mostly for laughs, Frankie’s concern over the matter ventures in a more resonant direction, not least because of Marlowe’s ability to convey such confliction without resorting to histrionics.
Amid the looming results of his HIV test, Frankie and Todd decide to take ecstasy one night, leading Frankie to sincerely marvel at how much empathy the drug gives him. His relationship with Todd is gradually turning from friendly to sexual, but Mason Johnson maintains a balance between Frankie’s comprehensive interests by including such a perceptive moment of introspection—interests that are deeper and more anxiety-laden than simply hooking up with Todd. If the spot-on dialogue weren’t enough, Mason Johnson provides several, elongated dancing sequences, which ultimately highlight Frankie’s emergence as both artist and mature sexual being. Adept as both timely character study and epochal drama, Test wonderfully manages fully formed humanism without sentimentality.