Indie drama evokes the early days of HIV in S.F.

Chris Mason Johnson’s low-budget romance
The Test does a startlingly good job of evoking San Francisco in 1985, not through CGI, but by finding the corners that haven’t changed in 30 years.

Johnson keeps the camera up on the rooflines of the Upper Castro’s Victorians, scoping the wedding-cake turrets, cornices and decorated gables. It’s a tight yet handsome story of the early days of HIV testing, when the form of the plague and its rules were starting to materialize.

The sonic-scape helps transport you back, with an original soundtrack by Ceiri Torjussen and a dozen oldies—a lot of Martha and the Muffins and the-lady-or-the-tiger menace of Laurie Anderson’s spoken word piece “Born, Not Asked.” The Bronski Beat’s lament “Smalltown Boy” gives us as much backstory as we need about the callow kid Frankie (Scott Marlowe), who was likely bullied out of some nice town by some nice people.

Frankie is an understudy in the McManus dance troop; he has a growing crush on his fellow dancer, the swarthy and sardonic Todd (Matthew Risch). Todd is open about his side-job as a hustler, and that makes Frankie hold off—he has a fear of disease, made manifest in the subplot about the mouse problem Frankie has in his flat.

The Test is a dance movie as much as it is reminiscence. We see the tensions of Frankie’s life through the sort of moments Degas caught, the dancer’s stretches and warm-ups, and the intimate moments—in Frankie’s case, searching among his freckles for a hidden sarcoma. The men of the ensemble are in a piece called “After Hours,” a
pretty unmistakable dance about cruising. Sidra Bell, who did the choreography, may have been trying to evoke the contortionism of the Twyla Tharp era.

According to Johnson, the title has a trifold meaning, with the ultimate test of responsibility being the last. I don’t know if that test is as vital—who could ever stay faithful in San Francisco? Still, this is a memorable movie about the city’s edge-of-doom days, the quiet fear and the remorseless beauty.

‘The Test’ opens June 6 at Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. 707.525.4840.


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