Set in Texas during the 1992 presidential election writer/director Jennifer Waldo’s “Acid Test” is a tale about coming of age and jumping out of your mind.
Set against the backdrop of the nineties Riot Grrrl movement (the underground feminist punk movement that began in the early nineties), Waldo’s energetic and always-interesting film blends cultural revolution with the personal drama of its lead character.
Jenny (Juliana DeStefano) is a high-school senior attempting to get accepted to Harvard. Her father Jack (Brian Thornton) went there and is laser-focused on getting her in–she is a legacy.
Becoming disenchanted with the idea of Harvard, Jenny is still finding herself and her place in the world when she takes in a Riot Grrrl show followed by her first LSD experience.
It opens her mind to the idea of thinking for herself. And maybe she doesn’t want to go to Harvard, after all.
Waldo’s screenplay finds drama in Jenny’s issues with family. Her father is sliding into depression, making him confrontational towards his daughter and wife Camelia (Mia Ruiz).
Jack grows even more angry when he sees his daughter’s growing rebellious streak.
Waldo finds good balance in Jenny’s parents, as the two take different routes dealing with the changes in their daughter while trying to keep their own relationship from cracking open.
The film is smart to show Jenny as more than a defiant teenager. After her experience with the concert and acid, the character digs deep and discovers who she wants to be at this moment of her young life.
Most modern films don’t have the skills to properly convey the inner plight of teenagers. Jenny’s rebellion is convincingly written and comes about naturally with DeStefano complimenting the writing through her acting chops. The actress is completely believable in portraying a young woman moving into the next chapter of her life. Hers is a focused performance that makes one want to see more from DeStefano in the future.
Taken from her 2017 short film of the same title, Waldo’s feature-length version of her tale has a few bumps along the way. Jenny’s relationship with her best friend Drea (Mai Le) isn’t strongly developed or explored, nor is her feelings toward Owen (Reece Everett Ryan), a rich kid “slumming” with the other half. The inevitable romantic possibilities between Jenny and Owen don’t find the emotional weight they need and could have been explored more deeply.
Still, this is a strong picture fueled by a good characterization of a teenager at the junction of youthful exuberance and independence, a place most of us, likely, have found ourselves in.
Based on Waldo’s own experiences growing up in early nineties Washington D.C., the director keeps her film centered, focusing on Jenny’s self-discovery.
The character is somewhat impulsive in her quest for freedom—weren’t we all? DeStefano’s performance and Waldo’s script find the naturalism of that time in a person’s young life. Through this, the picture reveals its truth.
“Acid Test” is a smart and well-directed film steadied by fine writing and true-to-life turn from its lead actress Juliana DeStefano.