What begins as a light romance quickly turns into a nightmare in “Test Pattern,” the debut film from writer and director Shatara Michelle Ford. While in recent years the #MeToo movement has created more widespread awareness of sexual harassment and abuse that women regularly face and has encouraged support for women who speak up, the reality is quite different for women from different places, and women with different skin colors. Ford’s film tells a story of assault from the perspective of a Black woman in Austin, Texas, and through her and her relationship with her white boyfriend shows how the justice system, the healthcare system, and a society that gives white people all the advantages, fails her.
Brittany S. Hall plays Renesha, who meets Evan (Will Brill) while at a bar with her friends. What proceeds is sort of your typical meet cute, where he gives her his number, she’s obviously charmed, but he never calls her, and then they run into each other at a supermarket. Evan convinces Renesha to go out to dinner with him, and despite their seemingly different backgrounds and personalities—she’s successful and works in a corporate environment, he is struggling to get his tattoo business off the ground—they are drawn to each other.
A montage filled with the kind of cute, loving moments you’d find in a rom-com—sunset strolls, meals together—takes us to a day sometime later in their relationship. Renesha is excited about her first day at a new job, a non-profit, and Evan is encouraging and supportive. At the end of the day, Renesha’s friend Amber (Gail Bean) invites her to go out for drinks with her. Renesha goes, not intending to stay out late or drink a lot, but the evening takes a turn when a couple of guys pick up the girls. These scenes unfold with an inevitable sense of horror; the interactions seem innocuous, but most women will likely know where they are headed. It’s easy to relate to Renesha in this scenario, obviously not wanting or knowing that she shouldn’t engage, but relenting to the pressure from both the men and Amber, first to have another drink, then to try weed, then to dance. Ford shoots these scenes in a dizzying way that shows Renesha’s control spiraling. She doesn’t really show us the actual assault (which Renesha herself barely remembers), and she doesn’t need to. When Renesha wakes up in the morning in a strange room, confused and ashamed and, as many women are wont to do, blaming herself for what happened, we know all we need to know.
The bulk of the rest of the film follows Evan as he forces Renesha to go along with him to a series of hospitals in search of a rape kit. This is where they encounter a series of obstacles that demonstrate in the simplest of terms just how screwed up the healthcare system in America is. The first hospital they go to has the kits, but not a technician who is certified to administer it; they are still charged for taking up the hospital’s time anyway. The second hospital also tells them to go elsewhere. Throughout the day, we start to see Renesha and Evan’s previously blissful relationship start to unravel. Renesha doesn’t want to go to the hospital at all, and when Evan starts to call the police later on to report a rape, begs him to not to. It’s easy to see this endless parade of hospital visits as just prolonging a trauma that Renesha is ready to try and move past. But while Ford leaves a lot of her characters’ feelings and motivations open to some interpretation, there’s a lot that can be read into Renesha’s reactions not only because she is a woman, but because she is a Black woman. Of course she does not want to get the police involved if possible. Of course she reacts to hospital after hospital denying her care with a sort of unsurprised resignation, while Evan is outwardly furious. The fact that Evan, a white man, is forcing her into a situation she doesn’t want to be in further complicates their relationship. He’s suddenly possessive and disrespectful as he attempts to dominate her; he acts like he is listening to her, but really he isn’t hearing a thing.
Both Hall and Brill create their characters with nuanced performances that make them feel like real, complicated human beings. They have a chemistry that’s hard to explain, but they guide us naturally through the story first with loving banter, then with crushing resentment. Hall particularly embodies the lingering trauma of the assault, which is what Ford ends her film with. She’s no longer excited about her job. We don’t know if she and Evan will be able to reconcile. She’s not getting the justice she deserves; if anything, she is the one being judged for getting into that situation in the first place. She feels like she has to keep apologizing, even though it isn’t her fault. Some of these scenes feel like they could have been fleshed out more, but in 82 minutes, Ford cements herself as a filmmaker with a strong voice that needs to be heard with “Test Pattern.” The conversations that have occurred surrounding the #MeToo movement are good, but there’s still a ton of work to be done.
“Test Pattern” will be playing in virtual cinemas through Kino Lorber starting on February 19. Runtime: 82 minutes. Not rated.