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When Evan (Will Brill) awkwardly approaches Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) while she's out on a girls' night and asks for her number, she isn't expecting much. Then she runs into him again, outside a grocery store, and his confidence improves a little. They go on a date, and there's some chemistry, and by the second date, their connection is undeniable. Before long, they're living together in a cozy-looking home. Evan, a tattoo artist, takes appointments out of the back, and Renesha has just left a high-paying marketing gig to work at an animal adoption organization. Their life looks like it's settled into a comfortable groove. Then, after a night out on the town with a close friend, Renesha wakes up in an unfamiliar hotel room with a menacing and passive-aggressively hostile man named Mike (Drew Fuller), still woozy from the effects of a drug that was supposed to be weed but rendered Renesha unconscious.
In the past several years, there have been an increasing number of movies, mostly by female filmmakers, that tackle the trauma of sexual assault and rape. Test Pattern tackles these subjects, but it comes at them from another angle, examining the way bureaucracy amplifies and distorts that trauma, and arguably creates a new and different trauma of its own. Much of Test Pattern takes place in hospital reception areas and windowless patient screening rooms, where well-meaning but emotionally unequipped people ask questions that are designed with legal protection in mind rather than emotional or psychological care. Writer/director Shatara Michelle Ford also firmly roots the film's POV in Renesha's perspective in order to examine the impact that even indirect or passive actions have on her, illustrating how simply being alive and existing in an environment that is often hostile toward her or potentially dangerous for her as a woman, as a Black person, or both, is a form of pressure whittling away her sense of stability.
The film can roughly be divided into two halves, with the first focusing on the relationship between Renesha and Evan, and the second following them as they deal with the fact that Renesha has been drugged and raped. Test Pattern is Ford's debut feature film, and yet her command of character and atmosphere is incredible. Renesha and Evan's courtship is fairly truncated (having seen the interview on the disc, probably both as an intentional choice and maybe a little to do with budgetary issues), but she and her leads create such a rich chemistry in just a few scenes. At first, they don't feel like an obvious couple, with Renesha projecting no-nonsense business world professionalism, and Evan having a kind-hearted but scattered, laid-back vibe, and yet as they interact with one another it becomes clear that they fit with each other, with his goofy humor helping to bring her guard down. When they sleep together, Ford makes the great decision to skip over the usual montage of bodies touching and get right into the afterglow, where the characters' emotional intimacy is equally sexy but tells us more about the characters. During that encounter, Renesha says she only has a single tattoo; when we see her later, living in a house with Evan, the tattoos covering her body speak beautiful volumes.
All of the romantic material is enjoyable in and of itself (one almost wishes to see a version of the movie that continues as a rom-com), but it also serves as crucial set-up for the second half of the movie. By the time Renesha is dropped off at home, hours after she told Evan she'd be home, her friend Amber (Gail Bean) has already returned, having been abandoned by Mike's equally-creepy buddy Chris (Ben Levin) after she threw up in a parking lot, reporting the same memory loss. Given all of the evidence, Evan springs into action, taking Renesha to a hospital in an attempt to get a rape kit, a task that turns out to be much more complicated than either one of them expects. It's here where Test Pattern gets into its toughest material, as Ford holds on Renesha's experience of what Evan is doing. In principle, he's doing the right thing (and his increasing frustration with the incompetence encountered trying to get anything done is justified), but he quickly loses sight of how his stress compounds Renesha's stress, with his focus drifting away from actually caring for Renesha and onto a checklist of tasks that ostensibly need to be completed. Instead, Amber and a gentle nurse (Amani Starnes) are among the few sympathetic figures as the day drags on. Through the mounting series of microaggressions and unnecessary obstacles, Ford paints a bleak portrait of the tools that society offers to women going through the same experience as Renesha.
Stylistically, the approach of Test Pattern feels as if it represents a new movement in the attempt to tackle social issues, especially those concerning women, on film. In the last five or six years, an active conversation about gender equality and gender in general has sprung up both as an industry concern (in terms of behind-the-camera talent and representation in film, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement), as well as in the form of subject matter. Test Pattern fits comfortably alongside films like Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always and Kitty Green's The Assistant in its exploration of factors beyond the actual crime and into the way we as a society and culture handle sexual assault and rape, and in the sharp POV documenting the way even a slow trickle of unintentional passive-aggressiveness or misunderstanding can ultimately wear a weak spot into a relationship. Ford, to her credit, raises questions the film cannot answer, allowing the uncertainty and discomfort hang in the air, as a potent reminder of what Renesha experiences.
Kino Lorber's Test Pattern's artwork subtly evokes a straightforward aesthetic, with Arial-esque, block lettering over a plain white background. At a glance, the text appears black, but on closer examination, it's alternating shades of a dark brown and navy blue. Images of the cast appear on the front and back, with the front offering a reformatted version of the film's theatrical poster artwork. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC, Test Pattern mostly looks outstanding on Blu-ray. Fine detail is incredibly impressive in close-up shots, with levels of texture and clarity that might occasionally trick the viewer into thinking they're watching a 4K UHD. Colors are wonderful, with Ford carefully balancing the striking palette of her shots with a naturalistic appearance. The one major flaw is noticeable banding creeping into fade ins and fade outs, as well as during some of the low-light sequences or shots that play with depth of field. A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supports the picture by creating a great claustrophobic atmosphere, surrounding the viewer with slightly heightened atmospheric details that serve to emphasize the way the mundane can become oppressive after a traumatic event. The disc also comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and English SDH captions, although as with a few Kino titles recently, the work done on the captions strikes me as somewhat weird -- for instance, kissing is captioned as "lips smooching" instead of "kissing," which is a strange enough description that it almost feels like editorializing.
One bonus feature is included on Test Pattern: an interview with writer/director Shatara Michelle Ford, conducted by filmmaker James Gray (36:18). In a recorded Zoom session, the two directors discuss how they met, Ford's approach to tackling race and gender with the film and how that stemmed from viewing films through a new lens in the year or two before she made Test Pattern, an unexpectedly traumatic experience with the police, using colors and other visual cues to tell the story in lieu of dialogue, whether or not there's an intellectual component to those choices or if it's more instinctual, point of view in the film and how it relates to Evan's character, a little bit of speculation on what happens to the characters after the movie (including the perspective of her two leads), interracial relationships, and the challenges and joys of making a debut feature. Aside from a few standard hiccups with the videoconference format, the one mildly frustrating thing about the interview is that Gray and Ford decide not to get into spoilers in case viewers haven't seen the movie, which makes me wonder if the video was recorded for some other purpose than inclusion on the disc. Otherwise, this is a great and intelligent conversation between two very smart people who get into some great details about the making of the movie and what Ford put into it -- it makes me wish every Q&A or interview with a filmmaker was moderated by another one, as Ford and Gray's shared understanding of the challenges of the work adds to their ability to discuss the movie eloquently.
An original theatrical trailer for Test Pattern is also included.
ConclusionTest Pattern is a tough watch, tackling discomfort head on and allowing the audience to sit with it. Ford shows incredible skill as a first-time director, eliciting excellent performances from her stars and executing a vision that feels precise and pointed. The disc is plagued by a little bit of irritating banding, but the presentation is otherwise excellent, and the interview on the disc is top-notch. Highly recommended.
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