In recent years, something called “gifted kid burnout” has been making its rounds on the internet, finally giving a word to the special cocktail of anxiety and depression that former overachieving high schoolers experience.
Watching Acid Test is like a flashback to that high-strung I-can-do-everything-and-more time — and the fallout that ensues when the constant rush catches up with a teenage body only capable of so much.
The film, from writer and director Jenny Waldo, is both semi-autobiographical and based on Waldo’s 2017 short film of the same name. Acid Test is the story of Jenny Jones (Juliana Destefano), an academically successful high school senior with plans to go to Harvard — her father’s alma mater — where she applied early decision. After her application interview, during which the interviewer asked Jenny about her personal interests and she was unable to answer, the overachiever finds meaning in the Riot Grrrl punk scene.
The scenes of Jenny and her friend Drea (Mai Le) at the punk concerts serve a didactic purpose; the girls read from counterculture scenes and the camera pays special attention to the Riot Grrrl bands. The concerts are definitely a highlight of the film, but the educational approach to these scenes carries a sense of nostalgia which works against the transformational energy the venue should hold for Jenny. The film’s point of no return — when Jenny drops acid for the first time —is also out of place, because when coupled with the sense of nostalgia and Jenny’s goody-two-shoes behavior up to that point in the film, it's out of character.
Jenny is a complex character whose story fails to underscore just how life-changing these "new" actions are. Despite this, Destefano delivers an effective performance, harnessing Jenny’s emotional turmoil as she grapples with her distance from her Mexican heritage, what it means to live in a patriarchal society, and how to make decisions about her future for herself.
Often, the film loses focus, choosing to chase too many sub-plots rather than tighten the central story. Jenny finds love, writes her Harvard essay, listens to punk music, and engages with the 1992 election — each of which are part of the teenage experience, but detract from Jenny’s foray into the world of drugs and punk music. Without the proper time devoted to her newfound interest in dropping acid, Jenny’s drug use often appears inconsequential and disconnected from other pieces of the story except by happenstance.
The result, then, is something akin to an after school special or Lifetime movie, complete with Jenny promising to never do drugs again, while figuring out the best way to integrate herself back into her family, even after what appears to be a months-long fallout with her father, who she often expressed distaste for because of his toxic masculinity and how that played out in their household.
For a film committed to celebrating the punk scene and how the Riot Grrrl movement furthered feminism, the ending is lacklaster. Acid Test is no doubt a coming-of-age film — and it is an enjoyable — but it fails to offer a new look into the form or use its connection to Riot Grrrl to make a greater political statement than that of personal individuality.