First-time feature filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford squeezes a lot out of 82 minutes. In “Test Pattern,” a perceptive and often quite painful examination of sexual assault, relationship dynamics, racial divides, and the corrosive power of violence, the writer and director mines a dizzying amount of topical issues, tying them all up as a compelling two-hander to boot. Despite the density of their subject, Ford avoids heavy-handed platitudes and dramatic tropes, instead relying on a strong script and a pair of sneakily powerful performances from stars Brittany S. Hall and Will Brill. The result is a showcase for the film’s central trio, one that resonates long after the film’s slim running time concludes.
Weaving back and forth in time, “Test Pattern” opens on the incident that will drive the bulk of the drama’s action: a woozy Renesha (Hall), still somehow managing to sit upright on a bed, a glass of water threatening to tip out of her hand. She’s not alone, and when Mike (Drew Fuller) comes into frame, Renesha’s dulled senses might not instantly realize the threat, but Ford’s invasive lensing of the interaction instantly puts the audience on alert. The discomfort of that scene will stay with both Renesha and the audience, as “Test Pattern” takes us through the events that led to the encounter, and everything that came after.
Some time before Renesha’s night with Mike, she was just an ambitious Austin woman out on the town with her girls, when her natural charm caught the eye of the liquid courage-powered Evan (Brill), who attempted to pick her up and promptly ghosted her. They’re not an obvious match: Renesha is a high-powered businesswoman with a swanky high-rise apartment, Evan is a laidback tattoo artist who doesn’t seem to own a piece of clothing without (purposeful) holes. And yet Ford’s careful plotting and even better casting allows a strong chemistry and a believable relationship to blossom between the pair in a minimum of time. While an intrusive score from Rob Rusli often detracts from the film’s romantic first half, it will later come back to better suit material that grows thornier with each passing minute.
Time goes on. (Ford does not explicitly announce exact stretches of time, though Hall’s changing hairstyles and a new living situation make clear at least a few months have passed.) Renesha and Evan are firmly settled into their relationship, with Renesha readying for her first day of work at a new job, just as Evan’s fledgling tattoo business continues to take off. Things are very good indeed, though Ford will later reveal odd sources of tension between the two as told through judicious flashbacks. (One of them, played at the time as sexy, in retrospect feels damning: white Evan, telling Black Renesha that he’d like to brand her, because she belongs to him.)
Eventually dragged out for a random night on the town with her outspoken pal Amber (Gail Bean), Renesha finds herself sucked into a situation with far-reaching consequences. Set in the unsettling anonymity of hotel rooms and a lonely weeknight bar, Ford ratchets up the tension with precision: Amber, talking about politics, catches the eyes of a pair of just-skeevy-enough tech boys, who inject themselves into the ladies’ conversation and never relent. Ford skillfully builds in the sorts of details that will both haunt Renesha and give detractors seeming ammunition for some classic victim-blaming: She and Amber were out drinking … on a Monday night … with men they didn’t know! They did drugs!
So what? Purposely disorienting and and unsettling, “Test Pattern” soon delivers us back to the film’s first scene: a woozy Renesha, a dark room, and a very creepy strange man. You know what happens next.
That doesn’t, however, mean that Renesha is willing to accept it. The next morning, she’s delivered back to Evan, who goes through every step of being a supportive partner. Even as Ford settles the drama into quietude — there are no overwrought tropes here, no screaming declarations, just Renesha and Evan dancing around an impossible situation — “Test Pattern” makes plain how this insidious set of circumstances will impact every part of her life. While that would be enough to frame a dramatic narrative, Ford finds other compelling avenues to explore, shifting attention away from the immediate emotional impact and straight into a quest that could serve as its own one-act play.
While Ford’s interest in exploring the early shape of Renesha and Evan’s relationship might seem like a way to spin through extra time, it instead functions as neat table-setting for the action to come. By the time Renesha and Evan set out on a journey to obtain a rape kit for Renesha, we know these characters so well — just like Ford — that we can almost see everything that’s to come. That’s not at all a knock on the film, because that necessary character-building is what helps push “Test Pattern” through its most arduous moments.
As Renesha and Evan motor around Austin in search of a rape kit (like “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” “Test Pattern” is a sterling reminder that many female-centric health care is often impossible to obtain), the film makes a sly transition into a drama less about Renesha’s personal trauma, than a wider-ranging look at the absolute dehumanization that seems to accompany bureaucratic matters. There are many moments in “Test Pattern” that might inspire rage in its audience (“Promising Young Woman” and “I May Destroy You,” this is not, but these recent narratives about the fallout of sexual assault are worth exploring together), but none so affecting as the repeated lack of concern that follows a request for a rape kit. The person in need of it, who requires the minimum of care and compassion, rarely gets that.
And while it’s Evan who takes control of the brain-bending search for Renesha’s medical care, Ford’s film often asks us to consider where that desire comes from. “Test Pattern” doesn’t push its biggest ideas, instead laying them out for both Renesha and the audience to decide for themselves — remember that “branding” flashback? — as the stress of Renesha’s situation continues to escalate.
While the film eventually gives itself over to less inspired narrative moments — here is, finally, the crying in the bathtub scene, the sequence that sees Renesha removed from the rest of her world, the disappointing response from law enforcement, etc. — Ford wraps them up with such a restrained conclusion, it forces us to reevaluate everything we thought we knew, or at least that we expected. By its end, Ford has unfurled a story — and a burgeoning career — worth considering long after.
A Kino Lorber release, “Test Pattern” will be available through Kino Marquee virtual cinemas starting on Friday, February 19.