“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’d 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 (and currently rentable on distributor Kino Lorber’s virtual cinema, Kino Marquee), is nothing if not surprising for the changes it marks in these two people, beginning with the fact that this parking lot encounter leads to an impromptu first date. Evan and Renesha do not kiss at the end of that date — but never mind. In hindsight, that would almost be too cute for the movie that follows. What arrive 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 again 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. 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 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 the thinking it encourages 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 may even endear us to them both, odd couple though they seem. 

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 the full extent of what Shatara Michelle Ford has called us here to witness. Test Pattern is a film about the aftermath of a sexual assault and, alongside that, the sudden quicksands that can befall a couple such this one — not only because of the assault in itself, of which Renesha is the victim, nor even primarily because of the bureaucratic hurdles she faces from there on, though this, too, is held up for examination. It’s the fault lines that suddenly start trembling between these two people, intimate partners whose psychological makeup we know more about than we realize, that Ford trains their eye on.

This is a film that takes a slim setup, all of it predicated on difference, and runs with it, renders it into something as intellectually persuasive as it is dramatically refined. The range of differences explored here — racial, gendered, class-based and above all, related to the rest, in terms of this couple’s separate experiences of the world and their expectations of it — is impressive in itself, not for the pure topicality of it, but because of the turbulent, uncomfortable collisions Ford manages to build into each pivot into the story. For as much as this couple leaves unsaid, much is being said from behind the camera, by a director who seems to know just what to do at the film’s most crucial moments, just which rug to pull from under our collective feet to get us asking the right questions.

Little of Test Pattern’s set-up is allowed to remain unquestioned by film’s end. 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. For its ostensibly binary sense of the world, as summed up in the differences between these two people, and for its literal examinations of blackness and whiteness, among other things, Test Pattern somehow avoids falling into the trap of painting this world in black and white terms. It is a film that, more than merely presenting the mess of life, dives headlong into the unimaginable, the stuff that defies easy summation or strict categories. Wisely, cuttingly, and to devastating effect.

In fact — it should be said — the first scene in this film is not the meet-cute gone wrong, actually, but rather 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 skill with the hyper-clarified image, with shots that sum up more than we realize, is as sharp as their way with the perfect details they give us of these people. With the exception of its more traumatic moments, Test Pattern 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 always realize. Until. 

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 one of the many brutal avenues of investigation Ford pursues once Evan becomes aware of what happened. And even this, the way he softly inquires, trying to make sense of it, is presented in terms that will strike some people as blameless and others as overly assertive, however unassuming it is.

It would not have been out of turn for Ford to offer something like straightforward, if calmly analytical, condemnation. That’s certainly their approach to, for example, 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. Test Pattern‘s terrains are the uncertainties, the barriers, the negotiations. Ford delivers these quandaries with the kind of precision you simply cannot teach, and with the level of worldly understanding about people that most of us, certainly most movies, utterly lack. Ford has an unusual knack for wedding psychological insights to a subtle visual grammar — an unsettled ping-ponging in some moments; a dread-inducing, static patience in others; an alienating navigation of spaces both clinical and personal, in yet others — which, added to the film’s insistently reflective structure, make the world of this movie feel increasingly cavernous, unsafe for being so unpredictable. Look at the movie’s approach to Renesha’s assault in itself, which happens at the hands of a man she and her friend Amber (Gail Bean) meet at a bar. Look at the lighting scheme from that point forward: the way that Ford grabs hold of what we’ve taken to calling bisexual lighting —  a collision of blues and pinks, vibrantly intermixed — and musses it up into a signifying haze. It becomes something portentous and terrifying, a harbinger of the inevitable as Renesha finds herself passing out in her assailant’s car. 

Keep another eye out for the way that Ford handles the scenes set in the 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, standing up for her, yes, helping her, yes, but nevertheless rendering her blank in the same moment. 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. That Ford does this using what are, cinematically, some of the oldest, most invaluable tricks in the book, is impressive in itself. It’s impressive when old tricks feel new, when a movie takes the basics and reminds us that you can still build entire internal worlds from them. 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 he displays, heightened in our ears. It’s in the way that Ford wields the films flashbacks, the echoes and unexpected parallels she accordingly incites — as during a moment in the car with Evan that, to Renesha’s shock (and ours), results in a surprising trigger. Not just a trigger: It creates an association between two men in this film that amounts to more than just provocative discomfort. It gives us occasion to think seriously about these men. 

Test Pattern puts this couple to the test in the starkest, saddest way — seemingly all the more so for the everydayness that otherwise defines them, 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 negotiate that insistence — particularly, in this case, black women interacting with white man). Ford’s movie makes you want to keep revisiting its most unexpected nuances, which nag at me even now. It is so pointed, and so tragic, that Amber and Renesha’s experiences of that fateful night affect them as differently as it does. What one of these women sees, the other does not, perhaps out of denial, perhaps because she’s used to it, perhaps because it simply didn’t strike her that way, perhaps because (by all accounts) she had what amounted to a less traumatic night. There’s no encouraging explanation, either way. And either way, in the end, the result is a mote of difference, a wall of ambiguity, that arises between these women. Even as the iron-hot clarity of what happened to Renesha is a nail in more coffins than I can count, something too decisively ugly to seem in any way ambiguous. That is Ford’s power. In scene after scene, Test Pattern doles out such nails. And Ford wields the hammer.

This is talent. Pure, plain and simple. Test Pattern is Ford’s feature debut, though it’s not their 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, women and non-binary directors — most especially in an era that, thanks in part to the lo-fi successes of microbudget movements such as mumblecore, has tended to glorify low-budget independents to the point of rendering crushing debt for art’s sake into something like a badge of honor. It’s as if making art with little-to-no resources were really a desirable outcome rather than the consequence of astonishing inequity that it is. This, too, is part of what Test Pattern is about. You can feel it as you watch. Here is a born filmmaker, fighting to get their vision in front of an audience at significant personal expense — and for the singular accomplishment of that vision, the expense will of course remain difficult to mitigate. We owe it to that effort to watch this movie. More than that, we owe it to ourselves.

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