A Harvard-Bound Riot Grrl Navigates Family, her Future, and “the Year of the Woman”


Steven Spielberg… Alfonso Cuarón…  James Gray… Jennifer Waldo?  Oh yes.  And if you don’t like it, you can go jump in a mosh pit!!

From the upcoming The Fablemans to the Oscar-awarded Roma, filmmaker autobiopics are certainly having a moment.  Waldo’s film takes place in 1992 as her surrogate, Jenny (Juliana Destefano, reprising the role from a 2017 same-titled short version of this story), a high school senior, attempts to navigate her future amid the rise of Riot Grrl disaffection.  Acid Test is younger, scrappier, and more female than any of the other autobiopics.  And yes, acid is dropped.  For an independently produced movie that’s obviously made on a threadbare shoestring budget, the drug sequences aren’t embarrassing, which they often are.  The wild-light color blobs and transposed diary text make for a believable enough trip, at least for this drug novice.

Before all that, Jenny is stridently on the straight and narrow.  A book-smart girl of Mexican and American parents, she has nothing left to prove academically.  Next stop: Harvard.  Except…… just as Jenny is getting ready to apply, she’s overtaken by a personal awakening.  This being a teenager in 1992- the much heralded “Year of the Woman”, a glorified platitude that couldn’t help but ring as a half measure at best- her said “awakening” is a personal search wrought with harshness (scrawling words like “slut”, “property” and “battlefield” onto her body), confrontational transformation (her straight-arrow long hair is cropped into a an uneven punk do.  “You look like a lesbian!”, she’s told), and massive, potential sea-changing choices.

It all plays as muddled and confusing, but it should play as muddled and confusing.  As the specter of her overbearing Republican father (a scene-stealing Brian Thornton) looms large in her both her day-to-day and her mind’s eye, the heretofore dutiful suburban Jenny quickly spirals into sex (a little of the quick, consensual kind), drugs (scary hard drugs, zero-to-100-style), and rock n’ roll (early ‘90s in-your-face Riot Grrl feminism). Suddenly she’s a part of an emerging punk permutation, a scene that gets how electing Bill Clinton (and there’s a lot of 1992 election coverage in this film) is a momentary balm at best.  (At worst?  Utter hypocrisy).  As one of her teachers asks, “Is this change, or is this progress?”, Jenny’s parents find themselves blindsided by their promising daughter’s slide into pronounced rebellion.

And that’s one of the great virtues of Acid Test: while Jenny’s journey occupies center stage, her parents aren’t at all dismissed or relegated.  Waldo, all these decades later, demonstrates a deep sympathy for them.  No one is perfect, and a lot of mistakes are made, but in the end, we find ourselves rooting for the family as a whole.  Destefano, though sometimes pushing the visual bounds of someone high school-aged, carries Acid Test with the boldness and confidence of someone who’s done it before.  (Which she did, in starring in the short film version).  The supporting cast is rife with terrific and diverse talent, including Mia Ruiz as Jenny’s mother, Reece Everett Ryan as her well-intentioned but red-flag-ridden kinda-boyfriend, and Sara Gaston and Kenneth Royce Barrett as teachers that make impressions.  Thornton especially stands out, alternating back and forth between frightening and sympathetic.  

An absorbing and potent labor of passion, Acid Test’s surface imperfections are thoroughly forgivable in the face of all it does so right.  No one will mistake Acid Test for a well-funded big-name autobiopic ala James Gray’s remarkably thematically similar Armageddon Time.  (I happened to see Armageddon Time the same day as this one, and dang… what a pairing!)  Waldo’s film, though, earns its spot at the table.  While perhaps not as hard-edged as some might expect for a self-acclaimed “Riot Grrl film” bearing a title straight out of Ken Kesey counterculture, it nonetheless achieves a difficult, even precarious balance within its small but ambitious recreation of “The Year of the Woman”.  (And being basically the same age as Jenny, this opportunity to revisit 1992 really brought back the cultural tensions and political flakiness of that very specific, not-great time).  In all of that, Acid Test brings home the vitality of the important people in our lives as change inevitably hits.