Hitting theaters just two weeks after HBO's "The Normal Heart" dramatized the catastrophic stakes of the 1980s AIDS crisis and lionized the distraught activists at the political forefront, the lovely and contemplative "Test" focuses on the experiences of everyday gay men trying to figure out what it means to survive that fearful, fatal decade.
For aspiring dancer Frankie (newcomer Scott Marlowe), that means waiting. As an understudy at a modern-dance company, he's used to anticipating the call that will change his life. But as a sexually active gay man in 1985 San Francisco, where signs of recent death are everywhere, he's also prepared to be hit with the worst news imaginable.
When the first HIV test lands on the market, Frankie finally gets the chance to take his life into his own hands. But he's too afraid: not just of the diagnosis itself, but of what a positive result might bode for his future. A cure seems so elusive there is talk of quarantining all the infected men. Uncertainty about the seemingly impossible "gay cancer" has made friends and colleagues suspicious of one another (a female dancer darts off after her gay male colleague sweats on her) while the Castro becomes a forbidden zone to many.
Writer-director Chris Mason Johnson's important, assured drama best succeeds as a snapshot of a moment in time when every gay man is forced to decide how AIDS will change his life. Frankie can't imagine a life of monogamy, but he's willing to try condoms. "My god, these things are going to end sex forever," he tells his morning-after partner, satisfied yet disappointed.
The narrative arc -- what Johnson offers can't really be called a plot -- is shaped around Frankie's eventual visit to the doctor to get tested. The rest of the film, which follows the sweet loner in and out of the dance studio, the bars, and his mouse-infested apartment, feels like "a month in the life of a bored and scared young artist."
Such a format depends heavily on the lead performance. In his first screen role, Marlowe, long and limber as a bamboo tree, convincingly emotes through his wide eyes and his lean, restless body. But naturally, the veteran dancer is most captivating when his character is in the rehearsal room or on the stage in one of several fearsome, sorrowful dance scenes that celebrate the body and pay tribute to the will to survive.
But Johnson's spare, stark script doesn't give its protagonist too many dimensions. Marlowe ultimately can't compensate for the fact that Frankie's kind of a bore, even when he gets caught up in an unexpected sex scene that ends with a great visual gag involving an albino parakeet.
Darker, stronger, sexier Todd (Matthew Risch), on the other hand, is a likable bully who embodies the dance company's motto: "F--k art. Let's dance." A compelling will-they-or-won't-die tension between Frankie and Todd propels the film through its slower scenes, and the resolution is admirably unsentimental and satisfyingly true to the characters.
Though romance seems possible between the two men, their cagey pas de deux is just as much about their renegotiations of their masculinity and sexuality in light of continual updates on the AIDS crisis. "Dance like a f--king man," Frankie is told in the studio, and he and his fellow students of the body share tips on butching it up on stage. (Hint: stiffen the neck.)
"Test" most often shows a proudly pastel San Francisco in the light of dawn. A new day is coming, and another one after that. Each day, the characters have to reinvent themselves to survive the night. Frankie and Todd are testaments to the audacity of hope and art's ability to create beauty from despair.