★★★★★ | Test
When the AIDS epidemic first started back in the early 1980’s the air was rife with panic and dramatic rumors that took the place of hard facts about the disease that were so few and far in between. Nowhere more so than in San Francisco home to a significantly large gay community. By 1985 when the first ever test for HIV was introduced nearly every gay man was living in fear of being diagnosed positive and facing an imminent death.
Chris Mason-Johnson’s excellent narrative is about one such young gay man… Frankie… who was a standby for a leading contemporary dance company in San Francisco at the time. He is quite skinny and scrawny compared to the 6 hunky hot men that he understudies and is often taunted by the choreographer to ‘dance like a man’ but that is only part of his worries as each day he listens and watches the onslaught of media coverage on the health crisis… ‘should Gays be quarantined’ one paper’s headline screams. He finds himself checking his body for any of the new tell tell signs that have just been announced.
He is not alone, as most of the other male dancers are doing this in private too. Even hirsute Todd, the ‘bad boy’ of the company that Frankie obviously has a crush on, is convinced that he is now doomed to an early death. The girls in the troupe start to get nervous of dancing with their partners who are sweating in case this is one way the disease can be spread, and they even go as far as trying to encourage Frankie to turn ‘straight’ to save himself. It’s something that his roommate Tyler decides to do anyway and he announces that he is moving in with his new ‘girlfriend’ Tracey.
The one relief throughout all this angst and dread is the dancing. Frankie and the others come alive on stage and are momentarily transformed with an uplifting feeling of hope and beauty as they dance their hearts out with their bodies intertwined and their minds for once full of joy. The despair may come back when the curtain falls but at least for them this is one very important reason for living right now.
As Frankie and Todd come to the point where maybe they have more than just a casual connection, there is a glorious moment of much needed humor when they wrestle with the novelty of having to use condoms for the first time. ‘What’, asks Frankie, ‘would it be like if from now on we had to only have sex with just one person to be safe? Would we really have to be monogamous?’ he adds with a grin on his face.
It’s a powerful tale particularly as for once it is a story about very gay young men, and is serves to reminds us of how free and easy their (and our) lives where in the days before the crisis. Despite including all the paranoia and the homophobia that were so prevalent at the time, Mason Johnson’s tale is also very much one of hope, and that despite the inconceivable amount of people that so tragically lost their lives, others survived and society did eventually heal.
It was a stunning acting debut from dancer Scott Marlowe as Frankie and he had great chemistry with hunky Matthew Risch as Todd (see opposites do attract). And the dancing itself which was a major part of the story was exquisite and so fluid… and the fact that writer/director Mason Johnson playing the choreographer was also an ex-dancer no doubt had a lot to do with it.
The story is slow to unfold as it take us to the place where Frankie must decide about taking the test but its worth each one of its 89 mins to get him/us there.