Cine Suffragette
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Cine Suffragette

Acid Test (2021): 1992 Riot Grrrl still rings true after 30 years

Actress Juliana DeStefano as Jenny in Acid Test (2021). Photo: Reproduction

2012 was the year I discovered the Riot Grrrl movement. I was 17 and was going through a lot in my life with my parents being divorced, pressure to excel in all school subjects, and exploring my identities. I was living in the countryside of the smallest state of Brazil and it was hard to find someone who was not conservative. I grew up under a strict Catholic education, so exploring heavy make-up, heavy music, and liking both girls and boys, were complicated and confusing to me. Riot Grrrl music and fanzines made it clear that there was nothing wrong with me but with society and it grew in me so much that it’s still part of my life. I could write a long essay on how discovering Riot Grrrl at 17 saved me and shaped the woman I have become, but for now, I want to write about this amazing movie called Acid Test, which some of my friends quoted as a movie that could be about my own life.

The movie is based on the memories of the filmmaker Jenny Waldo growing up in the presidential election year of 1992. Jenny Jones ( Juliana DeStefano) lives in Texas with her Mexican mother Camelia (Mia Ruiz), her white North-American father Jack (Brian Thornto), and her small brother Michael (Douglas Gamble). Jack’s alma mater is Harvard and he paved the way so his daughter could attend it too. Despite Jenny’s privileged background when it comes to social class, there are other complex struggles that make this coming-of-age movie different from others in the same genre that perpetuate clichés and depict teenagers as shallow individuals. Acid Test is Waldo’s debut film and it included more than 70% women and/or people of color in its cast and crew including a female writer/director, cinematographer and sound designer which definitely contributed to the movie’s authenticity. Little by little, Jenna’s comfort zone is shaken by the experiences she has away from home, and they will eventually broaden her horizons to perceive what goes on behind her four walls.

Giant Kitty band incorporates the riot grrrl aesthetics and motto but adapted them to today’s political demands, although some of them remain the same. Photo: Reproduction
Jenny and her best friend, Drea (Mai Le) read the 1991 Riot Grrrl manifesto.

It’s when Jenny and Drea attend a Riot Grrrl gig that they not only get to know Riot Grrrl bands and their main motto “Girls to the front”, but also zines, tapes, and other media that composed the DIY veins of the movement. If you are already familiar with riot grrrl, the scene will feel pretty nostalgic and if you are not, you will fall in love with it. I think no other movie recreated Riot Grrrl events like Acid Test. They are depicted in books such as Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus and Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie (there is a movie adaptation by Netflix but despite the fact that both movies portray teenage girls discovering riot grrrl culture, their stories flow in different directions) and documentaries like Lisa Rose Apramian’s Not Bad For a Girl. Jenny’s riot grrrl night goes from reading zines to taking acid for the first time. The drug allows her to incorporate new sensations that are enhanced by the messages of female empowerment in Giant Kitty’s music. The movie is not about acid, it does play a role in broadening one’s horizons but we end up learning that the real change happens when we are lucid. Acid Test breaks with the cliched use of drugs in teen movies and the two trip scenes are accurate, as I could personally relate to them, and it deserves credit for that.

Jenny’s cathartic experience made her realize that she was following her father’s dream instead of her own and she confronts him. I immediately remembered the times when riot grrrl gave me the strength to face my family and what they expected from me. Both Jenny and I were sent to our rooms and we resorted to music and riot grrrl images to keep going. My favorite scenes from the flick are when Jenny attempts at making some feminist collages and this is where I started before becoming a zinester. Her feminism starts with the individual awakening and is shaped by the political connotations of her time. 1992 was labeled as the Year of the Woman as more women senators were elected after Anita Hill raised the issue in the Supreme Court (a number that has increased but it is still small). When I become a riot grrrl, Brazil had its first woman president and I voted for a woman in my first presidential election in 2014. Jenny’s understanding of plural feminism is also formed when she questions her mother's subservience to her father and why she never taught Spanish to her kids. Camelia’s father prohibited her to pursue a career and she didn’t want the same to happen to Jenny. This shows that sometimes, a woman has no choice but to stay because she wouldn’t be able to provide the same as her partner to her kids. It’s a fair portrayal of many women who fled their homeland and adapted to another country’s culture and this is depicted through nonjudgmental lenses. Speaking of partners, Jenny meets a cool guy named Owen (Reece Everett Ryan), and their relationship flows very naturally. Her first time with him doesn’t feel like she was forced to please him. That’s the sexual representation that young people need. I still see movies and series focusing on a traumatic first time for girls. Positive representations are also necessary.

Above Jenny’s collages on the wall, there’s a kind of porcelain portrait of a girl and it’s interesting to see this contrast between the idea of what a perfect girl is and the rebel girl messages. It’s as if they work together as a unique collage. Photo: Reproduction

Despite being a movie set in 1992, Acid Test shows that not so much has changed in 30 years. Young girls, and people who are cis males or not, still find a source of empowerment in the riot grrrl movement, making it on their own terms and according to recent times. Ironically, 2022 has NOT been marked as the year of women because we lost Roe v. Wade. I said “we lost” because it will certainly reverberate in other countries with already limited laws regarding reproductive rights and ruled by far-right jerks like Bozonaro here in Brazil. This generation of young people will grow up with much more to fight for and since Riot Grrrl’s ideas mainly concern body autonomy, it can certainly serve as a tool for joining people’s forces and anger through music, fanzines, collages, protests, events and etc, online or in person. Current riot grrrl bands like Giant Kitty, Fea, and Pleasure Venom play in the movie and if you didn’t know them, they could pass as 90s riot grrrl bands, but they are definitely taking the movement forward in the best way possible. The movie also depicts another riot grrrl motto, sisterhood, through the friendship between two nonwhite girls and it’s not like that didn’t exist before our more urgent intersectional times, its representation just didn’t matter for the big screen. We were taught that girls=rivals. Riot Grrrl had its flaws but today’s wave is critical of them and Jenny Waldo’s movie is a great example of how rescuing something from the past can help pave a better future.

Being a Latina watching Acid Test was very relatable because of some aspects of my reality and not all riot grrrl stories are the same, of course. The movie’s depth made me feel like I was watching the closest to what could be my story. I feel that all riot grrrls and ghouls should watch it in order to learn about other realities, to feel nostalgic, and of course, to keep carrying riot grrrl forward because our times still demand much of its feminist fury and culture.

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Larissa Oliveira

Larissa Oliveira

Brazilian teacher, writer and zinester. I write about women in Arts. I also write for https://medium.com/@womenofthebeatgeneration_