There has been a reckoning in recent years with the reality of sexual violence and American society’s often cold reaction to its survivors. Test Pattern steps into that discussion by painfully leading us through the cruelties one interracial couple faces in trying to report a rape through the American health care and criminal justice systems.
Somewhat surprisingly, the opening act of Test Pattern functions as a sweet meet-cute romance between Renesha (Brittany S. Hall, HBO’s Ballers), a self-assured Black woman with a career raising money for nonprofits, and Evan (Will Brill, The OA), a White mustachioed hipster tattoo artist. The two seem like polar opposites in terms of personality, demeanor, style, and interests, yet we see them quickly and convincingly fall in love and craft a mutually supportive relationship. Everything goes to hell when Renesha goes out for a girls’ night to celebrate her new job, meets a pair of investment bros who are also out celebrating and don’t take no for an answer, and the next thing she knows, she wakes up in another man’s bed with no memory of how she got there. Evan, still the unendingly supportive boyfriend, insists she get a rape kit, which sends the couple on a stressful trek to every corner of Austin, Texas to find a hospital willing and able to administer a kit. They hit roadblocks at every turn, causing the normally good-natured Evan to blow his top and Renesha to sink further into herself, desperate to just let the whole thing drop rather than deal with one more indignity.
For a first-time feature director, St. Louis-raised Shatara Michelle Ford has an assured, unique visual storytelling style. This is a film where so much more is thought than is said and Ford isn’t afraid to let the camera linger on her actors until the viewer feels what they’re going through too, a challenge both Hall and Brill are more than up for. One of her neater tricks is the way the soundtrack plays off of the visuals; there are moments where a conversation is occurring but it isn’t the words that are being said that are the point, it’s the reactions, so the music swells up, drowning out the words and letting the actors’ faces do the talking. There is also a particularly evocative scene set in a pristine, sterile hospital waiting room set to Tchaikovsky’s “The Waltz of the Flowers,” the banality of the surroundings playing off the swooping, swooning classical score to excellent effect.
Make no mistake: Test Pattern is a harrowing, often uncomfortable movie to watch. That’s because that’s exactly what Ford aims for it to be: a horrible situation laid bare in excruciating detail. In a particularly harrowing sequence, we see the drugs take hold of Renesha in the club as her attacker swoops in for the kill, the off-kilter camera and muffled sound making us feel her disorientation. We watch Renesha trudge from hospital to hospital seeking and failing to find help or even natural human concern and our blood boils just as much as Evan’s. Ford isn’t interested in “storytelling,” per se—she wants to show us a fucked up situation that happens everyday in this country and scream at us “isn’t this fucked up?” This does make watching Test Pattern a somewhat frustrating experience in that it plays much more like watching Renesha and Evan deal with their crisis in real time than a traditional narrative with a beginning and an end like one would typically expect in a feature film. Some things are resolved by the end of the film, but there’s still an unnatural, unexpected ambiguity hanging over the film when the credits start to roll. But of course, real life is not Law & Order: Special Victims Unit: for the survivors, the effect of the assault lingers, sometimes forever. It only seems natural that Test Pattern aims for its story to do the same. | Jason Green
Test Pattern is screening as part of this year’s Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival and is available to stream from November 5-22, though only in Missouri and Illinois. General admission tickets are $10, or $8 for Cinema St. Louis members and students with valid ID. To purchase a ticket or watch the trailer, click here.