TEST PATTERN (2021)
Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller, Ben Levin, Amani Starnes, Caroline Bloom, Melissa Jo Bailey, Amanda Joy Erickson
Directed by Shatara Michelle Ford
Sexism, racism, and toxic masculinity walk side by side in Shatara Michelle Ford’s unsettling debut feature “Test Pattern.” Brittany S. Hall plays a young Black woman named Renesha who is sexually assaulted after a girls’ night goes wrong. Her white boyfriend Evan (Will Brill) is incessant that she undergo a forensic exam (known as a “rape kit”) to preserve DNA evidence and so begins a harrowing trek through the Austin, Texas medical system as the interracial couple experience one roadblock after another while Renesha deals with a range of emotions that include guilt, embarrassment, and anger.
“Test Pattern” opens with a scene that resembles Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” as Renesha (Hall), cups a drink in her hand, eyes closed, head bobbing up and down, obviously drunk or drugged, and in this case both, while Mike (Drew Fuller), whom she just met at a bar, seems completely sober and ready to take advantage of the situation.
Unfortunately, unlike Carey Mulligan’s Cassandra in Fennell’s dramedy, Renesha isn’t pretending to be messed up while waiting for the right moment to turn the tables on Mike. She wakes up the next day in Mike’s bed without any memory of the night before, but we all know a crime has been committed.
Before the opening scene fully plays out, Ford uses flashbacks to take us to the moment when Renesha met boyfriend Evan (Brill) at an Austin bar. He’s nerdy, awkward, and doesn’t make eye contact when asking for her phone number. Surprisingly, she gives it to him and when they later bump into each other at the grocery store, Renesha jumps on him for never calling. Evan explains, “I never ask people just casually for their phone number and honestly I woke up in the morning and I was like, what do I even do with this?”
If it sounds like Evan has zero self-confidence, you’re right. He’s a tattoo artist that barely makes enough money to get by — and then there’s the fact that he dresses like Steve from “Blue’s Clues” — and so when he meets a beautiful sexy career-oriented woman like Renesha he knows that typically she would never give him the time of day. Well in this story she does, and they move in together giving average guys everywhere hope. Hey, sometimes nice guys finish first.
Ford takes about 20 minutes to establish Renesha and Evan’s relationship which is going along smoothly when Renesha gets a text from friend Amber (Gail Bean) inviting her out for drinks. It’s a Monday night and Renesha promises Evan that she won’t stay out late plus she has to get up in the morning and head to her new job as the development director at the Austin Humane Society.
One thing leads to another during the girls night out as two young guys celebrating the sale of their tech company move in on Amber and Renesha. The shots flow, the weed gummy bears are passed around and while Renesha is hesitant, she’s peer pressured by her single friend Amber to go with the flow. This is where the film catches up with the opening scene as Renesha wakes up in a stranger’s bed with little memory of the night before.
Evan doesn’t get angry as Renesha explains “I don’t even know how it happened.” She wants to sleep and forget the whole thing, but Evan insists they go to the hospital to obtain a rape kit. So begins an agonizing quest to get tested as the couple is given the runaround at one medical facility after another.
Ford does a solid job of putting the audience in Renesha’s shoes leaving us with empathy for the character. Like her, we see Evan as a nice guy but there are subtle signs of misogyny as in a flashback scene where he talks about giving her a tattoo, “I was thinking about what I’m going to design next and brand on you ‘cause you’re mine.” Then in another scene without notifying Renesha he calls 911 to report her rape while she attempts to snag the phone out of his hand.
There’s a lot happening in Shatara Michelle Ford’s contemplative debut feature that may require you to pull back to get the big picture. “Test Pattern” is subtle in the way it approaches its varying themes leaving you reflecting on the film long after viewing.
Now showing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston via Kino Marquee. To purchase a ticket to view the film online go to http://bit.ly/2MjQSZn