“I never ask people, just casually, for their phone number,” Evan (Will Brill) says. This is how he greets Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a woman he met in a bar sometime before, whose number he’s asked for in front of her friends, whose shyness seemed, at the time, endearing. Now they’re two strangers in a grocery store parking lot in Texas, having an awkward run-in because, it’s clear, he never called — not that Renesha expected he would. “Honestly,” he says, “I woke up in the morning and was like, ‘What do I even do with this?’ ” To which Renesha replies with the obvious: “Call it.”
They recover from this — somehow. Test Pattern, written and directed by the startlingly smart Shatara Michelle Ford, is nothing if not surprising for the changes it marks in these two people. (The film is now available to rent on distributor Kino Lorber’s virtual cinema, Kino Marquee.) Evan and Renesha do not kiss at the end of that first date — but never mind. In hindsight, that would almost be too cute for the movie that follows. What follows instead are the hesitant, plausible, realistically banal rhythms of a healthy fledgling romance — rhythms that Ford will take great care to upend when, after a startling traumatic event, everything between these two people changes.
But first things first: Renesha and Evan. She’s a young black professional from Dallas with a graduate degree and an intriguing tendency toward vagueness about her job and other particulars, though not — as Hall skillfully performs her — because she’s cagey about it. It’s just not the kind of thing she seems to find interesting enough to talk about, a “corporate thing” of a job, one that doesn’t help anyone and, if anything, creates more problems in the world than it solves.
Renesha’s gorgeous loft (three decks! — and in one perfect detail, a messy bedroom that belies that professional poise), her directness, her intelligence: It all serves to knock Evan seemingly off-balance. Though, to Brill’s credit, something about Evan seems easily knocked awry from the get-go. Evan, a white tattoo artist who operates out of his own home, is softly grizzled, a little lanky — the word I’m avoiding is “adorkable,” because it seems so out of place here. Then again, when things get going and we learn that Renesha’s pet name for him is “Snoopy,” well, it fits. Evan is the kind of guy who needs to work himself up to asking for a woman’s number, who wears an apron and dirty white tee when he cooks, like a homemaker whose kitchen is an off-the-map greasy spoon. Kissing Renesha for the first time, you can see in the way he moves that he’s telling himself: Just go for it. Something about her opens gives him confidence. His sense of her sex appeal is undeniable. Evan nerds out when, in the prelude to their (apparently amazing) sex, he discovers that she has a tattoo tucked just out of sight, in a place where only a lover might find it. For Evan it plays like something of a sign. It’s as if they were meant to be.
These details of who Renesha and Evan are — the things that Test Pattern swiftly, yet somehow thoroughly, sketches out for us in its opening scenes — are worth lingering on up front, as the movie does, because of what this forces us to do as the film bears on. Hindsight — the revisiting of details that seem unremarkable until something forces us to reexamine them — is one of the key vectors of Test Pattern, both in terms of its structure, which is full of flashbacks and reconsiderations, and in terms of its cumulative power. The next we see of this couple, they’re trading I-love-you’s. Renesha, defying buttoned-up professionalism, has in the interim gotten an intricate sleeve tattooed from the shoulder down. This, too, is an “I love you”; it is no doubt Evan’s work and, in the moment, it endears us to them to us both.
It is only when Test Pattern leaps back to the moment that the tattoo was conceived between them — a moment that adds a sublime ripple of subtext to everything we’ve seen to that point — that we, the audience, realize what Shatara Michelle Ford has called us here to witness. Test Pattern is a film about the aftermath of a sexual assault and the sudden quicksands that befall this couple — not only because of the assault in itself, of which Renesha is the victim, nor even primarily because of bureaucratic hurdles she faces from there on, though this, too, is held up for examination. The quicksands are the outgrowth of seismic shifts between these people, intimate partners whose psychological makeup we know more of, from these seemingly harmless opening scenes, than we realize. This is a film that takes slim setup, all of it predicated on the differences between these two people, whether racial, or in terms of class, or — above all, and related to the rest — in terms of their experience of the world and their expectations of it.
Little of Test Pattern’s set-up, in other words, is allowed to remain unquestioned. How Ford achieves this so handily, with such a slippery sense of clarity and inquiry, feeling and analysis, is, frankly, beyond me. But that is the accomplishment, here. Test Pattern, for its emphatically binary sense of the world as summed up in the differences between these two people, for its literal examinations of blackness and whiteness, and gender, and everything else, somehow avoids falling into the trap of painting the world in black and white. It is a film that — more than presenting the mess of the life — dives in headlong, wisely, cuttingly, and to devastating effect.
Because — it should be said — the first thing we encounter in this film is not the meet-cute gone wrong. It is Renesha’s assault: blurry (she has been drugged), indeterminate, more suggestive than explicit, more implied than clarified, yet also undeniable, inarguable. We do not “see” the assault upfront. We don’t need to: Ford’s way with the clarifying image, the image that sums up more than we realize, is as sharp as her way with the perfect details she gives us of these people. With the exception of its more traumatic moments, Test Patterns is not a film that announces the extent to which it is incredibly subjective. Its ways of embedding us in Renesha’s consciousness are more subtle, structural — like that sense of hindsight I mentioned, which, one realizes, is a mental gesture the film performs on Renesha’s behalf, siding us with her, encouraging us to see these events through her eyes, in ways we don’t yet realize.
What should be said at this stage, because it must be the question coming to mind, is that Evan is not Renesha’s assailant. He is, instead, the man who, because he loves her, tries to take responsibility for her care. And this effort, this idea, is where Ford and the actors’ skill reaches its peak in the movie. There’s supportiveness, care, sensitivity. And then there’s righteous anger — and with that anger, the risk of a crusade. The aftermath of sexual assault is, of course, an impossible thing to prepare for, whether you’re the victim or the victim’s confidant. But the things Evan does, the person he becomes, is of the many brutal avenues of investigation Ford pursues. It would not have been out of turn for Ford to offer something like plain, if coolly analytical, condemnation. That’s certainly her approach to the bureaucratic tragedies Renesha faces in her attempts to get a rape kit.
But to take that approach to what happens between Renesha and Evan would drain the film of what makes it so singular and invigorating. This is a film predicated on uncertainties, barriers, negotiations, told with the kind of precision you simply cannot teach, with the kind of worldly understanding about people that most of us, most movies, utterly lack. Ford’s skill as a director is in the way she weds these insights to a visual grammar — an unsettled ping-ponging in some moments; a tragic patience in others — which, added to the film’s insistently reflective structure, make the world of this movie feel more cavernous, unsafe for being so unpredictable. Look at Ford’s approach to Renesha’s assault, at the hands of a man she and her friend Amber (Gail Bean), meet at a bar. Look at the lighting scheme: the way that Ford takes what we’ve taken to calling bisexual lighting — a collision of blues and pinks, vibrantly intermixed — gets rendered, instead, into a signifying haze, portentous and terrifying, a harbinger of the inevitable, as Renesha finds herself passing out in the man’s car.
And watch the way that Ford handles the scenes in various clinics — the plural there, clinics, being significant in itself. Look at Evan’s body, contra Renesha’s. At the way when, when it comes time for paperwork to be filled out, he obscures her almost completely. This film is, if nothing else, a masterclass in body language. Ford takes moments that feel like a guy doing the right thing — speaking up for someone in need, doing for someone what they cannot do for themselves — and twists them into ambiguities using what are, cinematically, some of the oldest, most invaluable tricks in the book, duly refreshed in Ford’s hands. It’s in the sound design: the way Evan’s voice is so loud when he says the words “rape kit,” the violating lack of discretion. It’s in the way Ford wields those flashbacks, the echoes and unexpected parallels she incites — as during a moment in the car with Evan which, for Renesha and by extension the viewer, amounts to a surprising trigger.
Test Pattern puts this couple to the test in the starkest, saddest way — all the more so for the banalities that define so much of its realism, the disappointments which, even when ultimately harmless (as when, early on, Renesha says she knew Evan wouldn’t call her) stack up and collide in the most disarming ways. It’s the kind of movie that, in leaving seemingly no stone unturned, makes you want to keep describing its contradictions and most incisive details (the whiteness of Evan’s friends; the insistence of men; the ways women have learned to navigate and negotiation that insistence — particularly, in this case black women). It makes you want to keep revisiting the unexpected nuances, which nag at me even now. It is so pointed, and so tragic, for Amber and Renesha’s experiences of that fateful night to affect them as differently as Ford takes care to depict. That a mote of difference, of ambiguity, can arise between even these two women, even despite the iron-hot clarity of what happened to Renesha, is a nail in more coffins than I can count. Scene after scene, Test Pattern proves itself to be equipped with nail and hammer, both.
This is talent. Pure, plain and simple. Test Pattern is Ford’s feature debut, though it’s not her first stab at trying to get a movie made. (She had a script, Queen Elizabeth, that got as far as being included on the industry-esteemed Black List but remains unproduced.) The story of how Test Pattern was made is a painfully familiar one, particularly for non-white (and/or) women directors — most especially in an era which, thanks in part to the lo-fi successes of microbudget filmmaking movements such as mumblecore, has glorified low-budget independents to the point of rendering debt a badge of honor, as if making art with little-to-no resources were really a desirable outcome rather than a consequence of astonishing inequity. This, too, is part of what Test Pattern is about. You can feel it as you watch it. Here is a born filmmaker, fighting to get her vision in front of an audience — and what a vision this is. We owe it to that effort to watch this movie. More than that, we owe it to ourselves.