Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | February 18th, 2021
Test Pattern (Shatara Michelle Ford, 2019) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Two women, close friends Renesha and Amber, meet in a bar for drinks, just to catch up and blow off steam. Soon they are approached by two men very much on the make, who ply them with drinks and weed gummies. Amber is into it; Renesha not, as she not only has work in the morning, but a boyfriend waiting for her at home. As the night goes on, the pot and alcohol cloud her thinking, and what started out as a fun evening becomes far less so. The next morning, there are consequences to face. Though not, sadly, for the perpetrator of what becomes sexual assault. Such is the fraught emotional territory of Test Pattern, the feature debut of writer/director Shatara Michelle Ford.
We don’t start there, however, though an opening prologue does, in fact, begin in medias res as the rape takes place (we don’t know what we’re witnessing at the time, though). Instead, we see how Renesha and Evan – that boyfriend – first meet, awkward and cute, and finally quite passionate. She’s African American, he’s white; she works a corporate job, he’s a tattoo artist; and the list of differences goes on, none of which matter, since they fall in love. Flash forward a few years, and they now live together, with Renesha starting a new position as Director of Development at the Humane Society, a gig more in line with her values than what she did before.
So far, so good, and on the morning of the fateful day, Evan, sweet man that he is, makes more than the usual breakfast to send Renesha off to work with a warm glow and a full stomach. Unfortunately, this idyll cannot last, and what will happen that night will infiltrate this seemingly close relationship and infect its memory. Violence has many victims, and sometimes, even those who believe they act for the benefit of others really only have their own interests at heart.
For the second half of the film, once the ugly deed is done, follows Renesha and Evan as they travel from hospital to hospital in search of a rape kit. It’s Evan’s idea; Renesha might just rather spend the day in bed. She even begs him to take her home at one point, but he insists not only on continuing their odyssey – no hospital has what they need – but on calling the police. To him, it’s the right thing to do, but that’s the problem. He’s not listening to Renesha, and his good intentions turn sour.
Brittany S. Hall (You Might Be the Killer) stars as Renesha and Will Brill (Ride) as Evan. Ford does an excellent job setting them up for the trials and tribulations to come, building their gentle rapport only to then baptize it with fire. Her film delivers a powerful, multi-layered tale that answers no question easily, plunging us into the maelstrom of relationship, gender and racial politics in ways both subtle and ferocious.
Even though Evan starts out supportive (and we find out that it was he who saved Amber from her own brand of trouble), his need to assert his male prerogative makes a terrible situation worse. Just when Renesha needs his compassion the most, he can only offer self-righteous indignation (mostly on her behalf, but that’s beside the point). Whether their partnership will survive the ordeal, we don’t know. The ending is wide open.
Beyond the finely tuned script, Ford also displays a strong sense of mise-en-scène, her camera compositions and blocking always elevating subtext. The sound design is also noteworthy, especially in the scene where the couple finally find a hospital with a rape kit. All of these elements combine into a powerful narrative, making of Test Pattern one of the best examinations of assault and its aftermath to grace the screen. It may be hard to watch, at times, but the bitterness is worth enduring, for the lessons teach us much about the right, and wrong, thing to do. See the pattern; pass the test.