We just recently had the highly acclaimed Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Eliza Hittman’s small-budget indie masterpiece that also explored women reproductive rights, for Test Pattern, the film also explores women’s healthcare challenges and is every bit as emotionally raw as Hittman’s masterpiece.
A slice-of-life and harrowing story, the small indie film Test Pattern unfolds as a one woman’s journey with her boyfriend during the aftermath of a date rape story focuses on their morning-after journey in finding a doctor that is capable of performing a rape kit test for her. Like Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Test Pattern is also a social issue movie–a battle for women’s healthcare that is alluring, and never didactic or preachy, but just observational with it’s matter-of-fact approach. Ultimately, Test Pattern is a timely film about betrayal and dignity, a nuanced story about how petty inconveniences are fomented from systemic racism and sexism that lurk in the corners of our society. Writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s directorial feature debut is a notable debut feature, one that is incandescent in it’s messaging and should be commended for it’s importance. It should also be commended in how it never feels heavy-handed either. The film feels emotionally involving and equally horrifying as Ford’s style balances between social realism and the psychological.
(Courtesy of Kino Lorber)
The film’s setting is in Texas, Test Pattern explores the relationship between Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a black development director for a non-profit organization, and Evan (Will Brill), a white tattoo designer, who find themselves in a dilemma after Renesha is date raped. The film’s opening scene we see Renesha and Evan in bed together; in modern day, Renesha appears to be reluctant but consensual in bed. Through a flashback the film welcomes us how Renesha and Evan first encountered each other. The film starts off like a charming Hollywood romance–charming, endearing, and sweet as you root for both characters to be together as you feel their spark. Upon the flashback, the film’s second act unfolds in real time and everything is linear from there. Renesha and Evan have a house together, and they are a very loving couple. Evan is very supportive and encouraging of her new job at the non-profit organization as Renesha is very appreciative and grateful of his support.
During the second chapter the film tonally feels inundated with dread, with it’s subjective style that places you in Renesha’s venture into the night after she and her best friend (Gail Baen) have a girl’s night out end up being drugged by a couple of sexual predator young men who lace some cannabis gummies. Renesha somehow, through fragmented edits, finds herself in a room with one of the predators (Drew Fuller). The images go out of focus, and lights turn to more subtle neon colors to heighted Renesha’s experience. The sounds go in and out as the aesthetics and frame-rate slows down to capture her disorientation. Even though he’s far more minimalist than the sexual predator in Gaspar Noe’s 2003 masterpiece Irreversible, it’s every bit as terrifying because of how calculated and hazy the sequence plays out. Renesha wakes up in some hotel with him, and the apartment is subtly lit like a Noe or even Argento film with red and purple neon’s that give it a hell on earth type of feeling. The subtle techniques used in this film feel fresh and utilized, they also never bring too much attention to itself, but just enough to capture the unease.
Once the predator drops her off at her house, he quickly drives off and Evan eventually drives all around Austin searching for a hospital to track down a healthcare worker who is willing to provide a rape kit for her, as Renesha insists that she just wants to go home and rest. It’s here where the film becomes very nuanced and layered, as Evan seems like a caring boyfriend who wants the truth and justice—there is a subtle scene earlier in the film where Evan jokes around and suggests in getting a tattoo to brand her as he states the lines “You’re Mine.” The title of the film is Test Pattern, and it’s revealed in this pivotal moment that the test possibly has more to do with Evan treating Renesha like his own possession rather than looking out for her own self-interest.
Eventually, Test Patterns unfolds like a Dardennes film, and it’s where it reminds you of Hittmans Never Rarely Sometimes Always. Like those auteurs, Ford’s vision ends up feeling like a parable as it holds some social commentary about the American healthcare system. It’s left ambiguous weather the fiasco of Evan and Renesha trying to find a rape kit has to deal with Renesha being black, or the fact they are in interracial couple. Whether or not Renesha is experiencing intentional prejudice is besides the point, as Ford’s main commentary here reveals how black people’s health isn’t exactly a top priority. There is a striking satirical scene in the film as “The Blue Danube” plays over the couple trying to get their situation sorted out that might feel oddly misplaced, yet this sardonic and tragic moment captures their powerlessness as these characters are outmatched by a structure that is far from principled.
The natural interplay between Renesha and Evan is portrayed with solid restraint. Their scenes together feel affecting but there is a facde to be found as Evan’s motivations are truly deceptive. What’s compelling about the film is the contrast how they both deal with the tragedy. Renesha already feels the odds are stacked against her, where Evan attempts to persuade her to bring her experience to light even though she doesn’t have the fullest support from law enforcement and the medical industry, considering the fact she can’t remember the predator’s name or license plate number. The road Evan and Renesha go on in is a cynical one, but it’s a humanistic chronicle of what many women endure with in a society that is in denial about many things–including structural racism and sexism. Often these issues are brushed off as “overly sensitive,” “pc culture,” or “sjw.” Sadly, these issues are apart of our fabric and structure, and more need to realize that they exist.
Overall, there is something deconstructionist and rather subversive to be found here, a naturalistic film that plays on social realism that also defies expectations and tropes on romantic movies. But at it’s core this film is a intricately woven and passionately put together parable. The results of Renesha’s experience is tragic, imbued with complexity and ambiguity that also feels angry and urgent. The result offers genuineness that still stay with you.
This film will be released on February 19 in virtual cinemas. Click here to find a Kino Marquee virtual cinema supporting a theater near you.