Influenced by neorealism and the L.A. Rebellion film movement, Shatara Michelle Ford establishes their voice clearly with their debut feature, Test Pattern. Following an interracial couple who must traverse the city, going from hospital to hospital as they try to acquire the proper treatment the day after Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) has been raped, Ford’s film is a scathing indictment of the medical industry inside of an examination of this relationship dynamic being put to the test. It’s surprising to learn that this is Ford’s first feature, as there are none of the signs of someone figuring out their rhythm that you tend to see with debuts. This is an assured vision that has something to say, and says it well.
Part of the success of Test Pattern comes in the way that Ford shows restraint where others might sledgehammer a point home. Our journey is focused squarely on these two characters, Renesha and her partner Evan (Will Brill), and all of the social commentary that comes into play is filtered through our experience with them. You can feel Ford’s influences in their approach, never straying away from the realism of having us simply living with these two and what they’re going through. This creates an involving quality that builds the tension, allowing us to surrender to the emotional journeys that both characters are struggling with during this unbelievably difficult situation.
After opening in media res with a scene that briefly hints at the painful night which will catalyze the main thrust of the film, Ford takes us back to the moment where Renesha and Evan first meet. It’s a startling shift, making us feel uneasy as Renesha and her friends are out dancing when Evan approaches her and asks for her number. He’s awkward, her friends laughing a little bit at his forwardness, but Renesha surprisingly gives him her number, and the two start to hit it off. We then see their relationship blossom, as Ford subtly details the way that the right partner can help bring out the best in us, and get us more in touch with ourselves. After a time jump, we can see how this relationship has allowed Renesha to pursue the things that make her happy in life and embrace the dorkier side of herself, while Evan finds more confidence, having a wit to him that he seemed too shy to express before.
Hall and Brill have wonderful chemistry throughout the whole film, and allowing us to see such a warm, romantic side to their relationship invests us in the two of them before they get pushed to the test after Renesha is raped one night when she goes out with a friend. Test Pattern isn’t an especially long film, clocking in at just 82 minutes total, yet even with such little time with their relationship we feel like we know Renesha and Evan thanks to Ford’s tender direction, and the fully lived-in performances from the two leads. That makes it all the more difficult to reckon with the fractures that start emerging between the two of them, as Renesha tells Evan what has happened, and the search begins for them to find a rape kit.
One of the most refreshing things about the movie is the way that Ford doesn’t sensationalize any of this. There’s a commitment to realism here, with subtle touches of cinematic language, that gives the film an authenticity not often found in movies dealing with subject matter as weighted as this. We see it in the interactions with medical personnel, who are often cold and uncaring, uncomfortable when the topic of rape is brought up, and always ready to stick Renesha with a bill even when they haven’t done anything to help her. Ford centering the story on a Black woman specifically draws the audience’s attention to the sexism and racism that exists within the medical industry, again without ever placing too fine of a point on it.
That realistic approach also applies to the shift in the relationship itself, which has a nuance that builds tension in an alarmingly authentic way. In a brilliant decision, rather than having Renesha break down into emotional outbursts, we see how she internalizes her anguish in the aftermath of this horrific experience. As Evan is dragging her along from one location to the next, she is mostly silent, still perhaps in a state of shock that this even happened to her, trying simply to process what she went through and what it means for her. It can’t be understated how remarkable Hall’s performance is here in capturing everything that is going on with Renesha internally, while on the surface she remains worryingly still.
While Renesha is processing it all, not helped by the lack of support from the medical professionals, Evan is the one verbalizing all of his emotions. Evan’s anger is palpable, yet Brill expertly navigates this balance where his outrage feels believable without ever stepping into melodramatic territory, where it becomes an over the top exercise in cinematic showboating. He lashes out at the medical staff, protected by his privilege as a white man to cause scenes in these public buildings without any fear of repercussions. In his response, we see how he’s putting his own feelings first, including perhaps some slight anger towards Renesha, blaming her in some way for “allowing” this to happen to her. Without spoon feeding the message to the audience, Ford demonstrates how Renesha, while in the most vulnerable situation imaginable, is being neglected not only by the people who you’re supposed to go to for help in a time like this, but also by her own partner.
Everything in Test Pattern comes back to that idea of authenticity, exemplified by the neorealist approach that Ford takes to putting us through the motions with these characters. At times, the film can feel reminiscent of Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always from last year. Despite being in their own specific circumstances, both films take this procedural, detailed approach to having us follow a woman trying to seek help, and being let down constantly by the people we are all told are there to help us. As is the case with Hittman’s film, Test Pattern shows us that maybe those services are actually only there to help some of us. For others, they’ve created a nonsensical labyrinth that will make you feel more alone than you did in the first place.
Test Pattern will be available in virtual cinemas courtesy of Kino Lorber on February 19th