Austin Film Festival 2021: ACID TEST

Coming of age tale with psychodelics and plenty of rock

The old saw goes “Those who can’t do, teach.” When it comes to director Jenny Waldo, that saw can get bent. With Acid Test, this collegiate film instructor makes a delicious dish, using her own teen years as tasty fodder.

Set in 1992, with Bill Clinton et al. as backdrop, Acid Test tells the story of a young woman, Jenny (Juliana Destefano), struggling both with college admissions and a newfound sense of independence. She has long wanted to follow her father’s footsteps by going to Harvard, and everything has gone right in her life to make that very thing possible. She’s a good girl with good grades and a good attitude.

But then the music shows up. After becoming exposed to the Riot Grrrl phenomenon, she begins to rethink everything her life has been about. She has to confront her place in this world as a woman surrounded by the patriarchy.

For Waldo, this was her life. Growing up in Washington DC, she attended great schools that prepped her for success, but she also found herself in a music scene filled with seminal bands like Fugazi and Minor Threat, as well as those first Riot Grrrl outfits like Bikini Kill. It was transformational.

Acid Test was filmed and set in Houston, and while it doesn’t shy away from its location, it isn’t beholden to it either. H-Town is a stand-in for any big city where kids can get exposed to larger cultural shifts.

One thing the city did do was afford Waldo some amazing acting talent, like lead Destefano and Mai Le, who plays her best friend Drea. Having a Vietnamese family represented is perfect in modern-day Houston.

Jenny (both the character and the author) had mothers who were immigrants. In the movie, she comes from Mexico, but it’s the relationship with the father that’s most interesting.

While the mom has come to grips with his controlling nature and explosive outbursts, Jenny becomes unwilling to swallow that pill. Confrontations build until the titular even takes place and her experimentation with drugs puts the family through a night of fear and heartbreak.

Waldo does the audience a favor by not leaning too heavily into the nostalgia of the era of Generation X, but she doesn’t run away from it either. Acid Test might be rooted in her real-life experiences, but it’s also a timeless tale of a youngster yearning to be free and too smart to put up with society’s nonsense.

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