2021 Catch-Up: Test Pattern
Here at Rough Cut, we typically try to review new releases contemporaneously — though we also believe that criticism can often benefit from additional time to process and audiences are not all rushing out to see everything day one, and as such our reviews will sometimes post shortly after a film’s release date, rather than before. However, every so often we feel compelled to highlight something that may have slipped by us and perhaps by many, particularly when the film in question is readily available and relatively underseen.
Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern stands as a perfect example: though it premiered at the BlackStar Film Festival back in 2019, it wasn’t distributed until early this year, and — though the critics who saw it were overwhelmingly positive — didn’t seem to reach a broader audience. But Test Pattern can now easily be streamed on Starz or rented for a few bucks from the VOD service of your choice, and gets my highest recommendation — it’s likely one of the best films you’ll see all year.
Ford’s debut stars Brittany S. Hall as Renesha, a young black woman with a seemingly successful corporate job. She meets and falls in love with Evan (Will Brill), a white tattoo artist — the two move in together and Renesha, with some encouragement (or, perhaps, persuasion) from Evan, transitions to the nonprofit sector. One night, while out with her friend, she’s taken advantage of and assaulted, and when she returns home following the violation, Evan is adamant that they should call the police and Renesha should have a rape kit administered. Reluctantly agreeing to the latter (though not the former), the bulk of the film becomes — on the surface at least — Evan and Renesha’s frantic, multiple-hospital search for a rape kit, throwing the horrors and inequities of the American health care system (especially when it comes to care for women and persons of color) into stark contrast.
And if that was all Test Pattern had on its mind, it would still be incredibly effective. Ford’s direction exudes confidence, style, and control: she uses color and movement exceedingly well, signaling emotion through visuals, and her compositions are smart and varied without being overly flashy. She avoids many of the directorial pitfalls of first-time filmmakers — the film is neither too staid nor too bombastic — and makes her world feel fully realized in just over 80 minutes. But Ford’s clever screenplay does far more than excoriate the health care system. Beneath the ticking clock scenario she’s created, keen-eyed questions about racial and gender dynamics in a relationship bubble up in unsettling fashion. Through careful use of flashbacks and parsing out of character development, Ford contextualizes and recontextualizes Renesha and Evan’s relationship, forcing the audience to confront motivations that at first glance may have seemed sincere (even if misguided). It’s tricky material, but her actors navigate it with impressive self-assurance, particularly Hall, who — tasked with carrying the film’s emotional weight — plays the situation with naturalistic and empathetic aplomb, allowing Renesha to experience trauma and pain without letting it define and overpower the character.
The film marks the emergence of an exciting and skilled new talent behind the camera, which in and of itself would be enough to recommend it, but it’s also rare that this sort of story has been told with so much nuance, compassion, and effectiveness. Ford is the real deal and Test Pattern is a calling card. Seek it out if you can.