Writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s first film is a knockout
Some movies like to tell an audience about an experience, and others prefer to give the audience an experience. Usually that happens with blockbusters where the scope of the story (and budget) is seemingly endless. Then there are the quieter stories, the ones that put viewers in the headspace of a character so thoroughly that audience and character become one. Shatara Michelle Ford’s remarkable Test Pattern occupies that space. It’s about the fickleness of fate and relationships but, at its core, is a story about systemic injustice and the casual cruelty it inflicts on people. For a film that spends most of its runtime on the course of a single day, it packs a lifetime’s worth of anger and frustration into a tight package.
The movie starts with Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) starting up a relationship with Evan (Will Brill). She’s Black and has a successful but boring corporate job, he’s white and works as a tattoo artist. Their relationship develops quickly, and it seems like we’re headed toward a relationship drama. Then fate intervenes. We jump forward to Renesha and Evan living together and things are going well. One night Renesha goes out for drinks with a friend. Evan doesn’t want to go, but encourages her to have a girls’ night out. The night goes from a bore to a blur to a nightmare after Renesha takes an edible and blacks out.
The next morning it’s clear that something bad happened, and Evan quickly decides Renesha should go to the hospital and get examined for sexual assault. From there the two get caught up in a web of bureaucratic indifference, getting bounced from hospital to hospital. One place doesn’t have anyone on staff qualified to administer a rape kit. They’re referred to another hospital only to be told that they don’t have any rape kits in the building.
So it goes.
Without explicitly stating it, Renesha’s story is steeped in intrinsic racism and misogyny. The United States is notoriously bad with handling sexual assault. Rape kits go untested, crimes go unreported, and crimes that are reported aren’t investigated as thoroughly as they should be. We’ve created a system that marginalizes and re-victimizes people, most often women. Ford’s script lays out one indignity after another for Renesha in a way that hints at the Sisyphean path victims face without lecturing the audience. For a film tackling thorny topics, Ford’s approach is understated — to the story’s benefit. The less confident version of this move would be didactic, spoon-feeding the audience righteous anger. But Ford doesn’t need to take that approach because the systemic problems Renesha encounters speak loud enough.
Renesha starts the film as a strong, successful Black woman. When Evan asks for her phone number, he’s so nervous that it looks like she gives in because she’s proud of him for getting the question out without fainting. Their first date ends with her waiting for a kiss he’s too hesitant to deliver. Quite the contrast to later in the film when Renesha just wants to go home and Evan is adamant about having Renesha examined and a rape kit administered. Ford and cinematographer Ludovica Isidori often frame Renesha in such a way that it looks like she’s trapped. That sense of claustrophobia increases as the story goes along, culminating with a series with a shot that conveys a complete sense of helplessness. It’s crushing, it’s infuriating, it’s authentic. Test Pattern reminded me of another no-frills drama about a woman navigating a world that is stacked against her, Kitty Green’s The Assistant. Like that film, Test Pattern is a showcase for its writer-director and star. Ford is clearly someone to watch going forward. As Renesha, Brittany S. Hall is revelatory. She balances Renesha’s strength and vulnerability, using her physicality to convey everything we need to know about the character.
Test Pattern is available now on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. The film didn’t get a chance for a proper theatrical run, but is absolutely worth seeking out now. The disc is light on bonus features, save for a half hour conversation between Ford and filmmaker James Gray. The two go back a little bit and that familiarity helps the conversation get to some deeper places. The only knock against it is that the two try to keep things spoiler free, so a couple points are left vague.
Test Pattern is available on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber