‘Test Pattern” begins with a meet-cute in an Austin bar: Evan (Will Brill), who is white, sidles up on the dance floor to Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a young Black woman out drinking with girlfriends.
When Evan later comes up to the friends’ table to ask for Renesha’s number, some female viewers might be taken aback at how easily she gives it. And given that “Test Pattern” is a film with a rape at its center, we might cringe preemptively at where we fear this encounter is heading.
But that’s not where the plot goes, and in fact, Evan and Renesha are soon living together cozily. Yet “Test Pattern” unspools a slow, quiet horror that comes to entwine much of Renesha’s life, including her loving partner.
Written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford in her debut feature, and billed as part psychological horror and part realist drama, “Test Pattern” unsettles slowly and lingeringly. It streams now through PMA Films, in a co-presentation with Sexual Assault Services of Southern Maine.
In what at first feels like a misdirection or pacing misfire, Ford spends the first 40 minutes or so portraying the swift courtship and then the cute quotidian domestic moments of Renesha and Evan, from a surprisingly fast-moving first date to Evan’s sweetly cooked breakfasts, and Renesha’s optimistic first day at a new job.
These scenes keep us at an odd distance from the characters as individuals and partners, and we might strain to understand what makes this couple tick: Put-together Renesha works in development, and Evan is a scruffy tattoo artist. Of course Cupid often knows no vocational bounds, but as the scenes merely skim the surfaces of Renesha and Evan, we have to take the solidity of theirs on faith. And perhaps, ultimately, we’re not the only ones.
Once the rape happens, under hazy, ambiguous, and chemically-altered circumstances (and shot with red-tinged, subjective-camera blurriness), it becomes a stress test for the relationship. The couple talks about what happened in uneasy silences, all reticence and shorthand. Renesha apologizes more than once. For a strange limbo period, neither seems to acknowledge that what has happened is rape.
Finally: “Um, I think we should go to the hospital,” Evan says. “Right now?” Renesha replies, and we can see in her face the complex threads of her resistance to the idea: confusion, fatigue, shame, and fear.
From here, the action picks up and the film’s goal seems clearer: finding a rape kit for Renesha, in a state and health-care system rife with inadequacies and inequities. The couple’s encounters with the system, in fact, are almost laughably bad.
“My girlfriend is a potential victim of sexual assault,” Evan tells one receptionist. “We were hoping to get a rape kit.” The woman’s first response: “What?” followed by “Can I see your ID?” Hospitals on the rape-kit list don’t have kits or the required special examiner. These scenes are often of waiting in lobbies, and string-heavy sound design underscores the bizarre juxtapositions of Renesha’s journey. As they arrive at one hospital, an entire sequence unfolds to Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers.”
Meanwhile, Evan takes charge in a way that flickers uneasily between chivalrous, paternalistic, and even proprietary. As we watch him call the police to report the rape – without consulting Renesha and to her great dismay – the act suggests not only how urgently Evan wants to protect his girlfriend, but also how anxious he might be, for his own reasons, to make sure that what happened to her is deemed rape.
During and in the aftermath of the hospital sequences, the film often lingers in long takes of Renesha’s anguished, stoic face. She’s not saying much, but between her restrained silence and the flashbacks that start to arise, we understand her unease to be spreading and seeping.
I sat down to screen this film thinking that it was a movie about one rape and its aftermath in an intersectionally dysfunctional system. And these are indeed focal points and catalysts in the film. But the film’s true subject is larger, and it creeps only very gradually into focus. Little by little, we’re shown seemingly minor details that reveal larger patterns of life for a Black woman in America and in the South in particular.
One flashback scene finds Renesha upset when Evan is late meeting her at a barbeque hosted by his friends, whom she hasn’t met yet. While Evan apologizes and says all the right things, he doesn’t seem to grasp the racial dynamics underlying her disinclination to show up alone at a white stranger’s house. Another flashback scene, in which Evan makes a horrific joke involving tattoos, is further evidence of disturbing attitudes that might remain in the social fabric that enmeshes even the most loving allies.
The press notes for “Test Pattern” remind us of the title noun’s definition: “A fixed picture broadcast by a television station to assist viewers in adjusting their receivers.” And in her director’s statement, Ford also refers to the film as a “litmus test,” one that can bring to light viewers’ attitudes and beliefs about patriarchy, race, and consent.
But a litmus test and a test pattern are not quite the same thing: one reveals, while the other can actually be an instrument for “adjusting our receivers” – that is, actually changing our understanding. The lasting power of Ford’s unassuming yet haunting debut film is that it can be both.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
• Try your hand at deduction with the next show in Penobscot Theatre Company’s Digitus Theatrum: March 11 sees the launch of the audience-interactive whodunit “Who Killed Zolan Mize?” Viewers at home can observe suspects, note clues, and shape one of several possible endings to the mystery. Visit penobscottheatre.org.
• Do you long to optimize the two dimensions of your computer screen with the three dimensions of your body in space? Starting on March 7, the local modern dance collective The Living Room hosts four weekly online workshops for dancers and movers interested in live streaming their work. Taught by Philadelphia dancer and instructor Asimina Chremos, this free series of classes, “5D Interdimensional Dance and Performance Practicum,” requires nothing more than masking tape, string, paper, pen, and scissors. Register to receive the Zoom link at thelivingroomdance.com/.
• This spring, the Theater Project launches a series of online acting workshops, including classes in monologues, audio drama, and improv. FMI: theaterproject.com/.
• You have one more weekend to stream Mad Horse Theatre Ensemble’s just-for-Zoom performance “This is Just Intermission.” Devised and performed by physical comedian Jared Mongeau, this exploration between the physical and digital streams through March 7. Visit madhorse.com.
— Megan Grumbling