ACID TEST: 90s Set Coming-Of-Age Drama Fueled By Riot Grrl And Politics

Acid Test, written and directed by Jennifer Waldo, is set at the height of the 1992 presidential election in Texas and explores the changes that come from growing up and the importance of staying true to ourselves. Acid Test bounces between wonderful realistic moments highlighting the dread of trying to decide what we want to do and who we want to be for the rest of our lives. The film uses the backdrop of the 1990s riot grrl movement to highlight Jenny’s (Juliana Destefano) struggles deciding if Harvard is her dream or her father’s–She’s a legacy with a 4.0 GPA.

Use of the Era to Tell the Story

Acid Test uses the riot grrl scene to explore Jenny’s feminist ideals and some moments really work, especially early on when she is getting ready for a concert with her best friend Drea (Mai Le), but the film too quickly separates the two and sending Jenny more into the arms of Owen (Reece Everett Ryan), who works as a love interest and her introduction to the world of LSD.

ACID TEST: 90s Set Coming-Of-Age Drama Fueled By Riot Grrl And Politics
source: Dances with Films Festival

The story following how Jenny’s use of acid puts up walls between her and Drea is worthy of exploration, but we don’t get enough moments of the pair as best friends before they start getting pulled apart. This makes the film lose some of the emotional connection we could have with their friendship.

When Acid Test allows its era to come through, the film has a heart and a unique visual style. The moments showing Jenny’s acid use work well, especially when in relation to the family drama aspects of the story. But the film seems to focus too much on this family tension. At times, these moments help make her acts of rebellion that much more realistic.

Family Drama Tension

Setting this around the 1992 election adds another layer to that family drama, showcasing the tensions that arise during elections, especially in a place like Texas and in a multicultural household – Jenny is Latinx. Her mother is from Mexico and her white father does not let her mother return when her family needs her.

The family drama does feel realistic and these moments of abuse are as tense as a horror film, showing us the true horror of real life. But sometimes the horror tension of these moments is undercut with scenes that seem to pull back on what the film wants to say.

The election aspect plays into the family tension, but only briefly and could have become a bigger focus, showing how elections can tear families apart and lead to people discovering what is important to them.

College Search Realism

One aspect of Acid Test that is wonderfully realistic is the attitude toward college applications and deciding our future at such a young age. Jenny is a smart student who wants to go to Harvard, but as she gets further into the riot grrl scene, she realizes that maybe this isn’t her, but more the dreams of her parents – mainly her father who disrespects her choices by making decisions for her in every aspect of her life, including college.

ACID TEST: 90s Set Coming-Of-Age Drama Fueled By Riot Grrl And Politics
source: Dances with Films Festival

Watching Jenny pull out every college pamphlet available in the school library and hesitating to fill out the ‘major’ section of the application perfectly represents the anxiety that comes from trying to make these huge decisions. These moments are highly realistic and refreshing, but sometimes they seem lost in the film’s focus on family drama.

Visual and Aural Style

The moments when Jenny is experiencing her acid trips are so vivid and display how drugs impact her mind as a writer. The colors and lighting in these scenes add a sense of urgency and contemplation to the film.

The use of sound and repetition in Acid Test makes tense moments even more impactful and highlights how teenagers replay moments trying to discover themselves underneath the voices of their parents and friends. Some of the most impactful moments come when Jenny has her father’s disapproving voice repeating over the next scenes, especially when the statements are damaging and spiteful.

ACID TEST: 90s Set Coming-Of-Age Drama Fueled By Riot Grrl And Politics
source: Dances with Films Festival

Brian Thornton’s performance as her father recalls the controlling and abusive father in Lucky McKee’s 2011 horror film The Woman. At times, I wondered: Am I watching a coming-of-age drama or a horror film? This tone worked for me, showing how abuse and outdated misogynistic outlooks are as horrifying as the monsters we see in the horror genre.

The horror tone comes through the most in the use of sound and combining Jenny’s father’s abuse through her acid trip. His already aggressive tendencies are exaggerated on her trip and this makes the family breakfast the next morning one of the tensest moments in the film.

Conclusion

Acid Test has its moments of realistic, memorable coming-of-age storytelling and the uncertainty of life and friendships, but the film’s stories sometimes do not blend well together and the characters surrounding Jenny–such as best friend Drea–are underexplored.

Have you seen Acid Test? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Acid Test will play at the Dances with Films Festival on June 18, 2022!


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