• September 21, 2023

“Test Pattern,” Reviewed: A Brilliant Début Examines the Aftermath of Sexual Assault

Shatara Michelle Ford’s brilliant first feature, “Test Pattern” (which is now available in virtual theaters via) Cinema marquee) follows a young woman named Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) in Austin, Texas, who meets a young man named Evan (Will Brill) at a club. A romantic relationship between them develops quickly, and soon they are living together. She is a business development executive. He is a tattoo artist. She is black; He’s white, although they never discuss their racial identity in the film. As I watched, I was engrossed in her story, albeit in an unusual way. It was clear from the start that things between the two were too good to be true, that there were unspoken problems in Paradise. When the problem arose, however, it felt born not from the complex idiosyncrasies of a real-life romance, but from a number of systemic forces. The characters are carefully thought out and keenly watched, and are made up of the recognizable stuff of life with overall plausible intentions, interests, and emotional responses. Her story in “Test Pattern”, however, does not feel intended to reveal her inner life alone, but to put society to the test. The film is practically a film laboratory – not an experimental film, but a film that is an experiment in action. The apparent realism of the film serves a bold analytical abstraction.

Ford, working with editors Katy Miller and Matt Tassone, implements this concept with a jerky sense of form, the intellectual impact of which is almost physical in its intensity. The bold nature of the film with time and memory is evident from the start; It begins with a scene that sets a tone, though its timing remains unclear until the middle – an isolated and decontextualized scene of a black woman and a white man in an ambiguous sexual encounter. (It’s impossible to come up with the ideas in “Test Pattern” in any meaningful way without discussing the key plot points, spoilers ahead.) After Renesha has a relationship with Evan and moves in with him, she fulfills hers, too Long-term ambition to leave the corporate world: She accepts a position as development manager at a non-profit organization. On her first day home, she hears from a friend named Amber (Gail Bean) who takes her out for a night at a club, and she continues what Evan calls a “girls night” and plans to hold it back avoid drinking.

In the club, Amber (who is also Black) and Renesha discuss the politics of their daily lives. Both workplaces are predominantly white. Amber says she hears her colleagues praising Donald Trump; Renesha says she avoids discussing politics at work because, as she says, the nonprofit world is not entirely liberal. You cite the death of Sandra Bland as an example of good-natured Texas politics, and Amber longs to flee to New York or San Diego “because Texas will kill me.” As they speak, two white men (Drew Fuller and Ben Levin) approach women by enthusiastically approving these political views – it’s the only moment in the film when men and women, blacks and whites, discuss political issues together and it’s a disgusting trick.

What follows is sexual assault: the men persuade and flirt with the women, then drug them, and one of them takes Renesha – dazed, then passed out – into a hotel room and rapes her. “Test Pattern” shows with excruciating precision how the predators lead Renesha and Amber to make clearly unwise decisions, and demonstrates it without mitigating the criminal and moral horror of the attackers’ actions or blaming the victims. There is a conceptual framework behind Ford’s decision to bring the details of the crime to the fore. By highlighting the practical and psychological steps involved, the film reveals – like an X-ray – the hidden rifts in society, the rifts in the system that seriously endanger body and mind, private life and civic responsibility.

The next morning, Renesha’s attacker throws her into Bernstein’s house, and Evan meets her there. She vaguely remembers what happened and apologizes to Evan, who says she has nothing to apologize for. Here the film introduces a different question of consent that shows a male prerogative of a different kind – and which the film subtly and conceptually links to other abuses, whether criminal or generally legal. Renesha wants to go home, but Evan insists that they go to a hospital – so that she can be forensically examined with what is known as a rape kit. What follows is a complex, stressful, and unsettling odyssey as Renesha and Evan are forced to go from hospital to hospital looking for a facility that has both a rape kit and staff members who are authorized to use it. Along the way, another form of dispossession, political and administrative, is dramatized: To see a practitioner, Renesha has to leave her ID with a receptionist – and sign a form accepting all charges in order to get her ID back. That moment of horror, pregnant with the prospect of onerous bills and indescribable debt, briefly but powerfully captures the shame of the American healthcare system.

There is a physical side to the absurd loads the system puts on – Evan tells Renesha that she needs to hold back while peeing so she can provide a urine sample for the rape kit if she finds one. This adds additional agony, frustration, and outrage to Renesha’s journey from hospital to hospital. What is not stated or discussed, however, is Evan’s motive for urging Renesha to undergo a forensic examination. Is he suppressing his own anger – even at Renesha – at the desire to take legal revenge on her attacker? Does she want to take the exam herself, or is she doing it to please, reassure, or compensate Evan in some way? A series of flashbacks, concisely conceived and placed with a razor-sharp sense of timing, point out lines of error in the couple’s relationship even in good times – not necessarily serious or insurmountable ones, but those that are legal, like weaknesses in a medical system are set up (or can’t help thinking given recent events in Texas, a power grid) make it harder to absorb the stress. Furthermore, the film implies that systemic breakdown will be most catastrophic for blacks, especially black women. The silence that surrounds Renesha and Evan – the silence about their identity, the silence about the frantic pursuit of a rape test, the silence about the failure of the medical and legal system – is a silence that wafts through the halls of power and history echoes through it. In this sense, “Test Pattern” is an echo of an echo, a convergence of social science cinema and suppressed cries of pain that seem urgently and precisely designed to break the silence.

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