Completing a feature film is no small task for any artist, from an independent drama to a superhero blockbuster. From script to production to editing and final touches, crafting a finished story is as much about the alchemy of one’s vision being realized as it is about the puzzle of logistics piecing together just so. Filmmaker Shatara Michelle Ford has managed to achieve both with Test Pattern, a compelling if small independent drama about a woman’s experience in search of medical care after a sexual assault that, against all odds, found its way to a studio that is now helping it find audiences nationwide. In a media landscape more crowded than ever, a film like Ford’s is a welcome reminder that talent, story and vision still matter.
Set in Austin, the first 20 or so minutes of Test Pattern are a sweet journey through the courtship and blossoming relationship between Ranesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill). She is Black and he is white, a distinction that becomes a factor as the film goes on and we witness their separate and shared experiences in an exhausting search for competent healthcare. Ranesha is just starting a new job at the Humane Society and Evan is an established tattoo artist (Ford cleverly clues us in to where we are in the timeline of their relationship by the number of visible tattoos we can see on each of them), and they are what the kids probably would refer to as #relationshipgoals. Not only do they adore each other, but they are kind and considerate to each other, full of words of affection and each other’s biggest cheerleaders. As Ranesha sets out for her first day of work, Evan is practically dripping with pride.
That night, though Ranesha is looking forward to a quiet night in after a big day, her friend calls and implores her to come out to a bar with her for a bit instead. Ever-doting Evan doesn’t begrudge her the chance to celebrate with friends, but Ranesha promises to be home before midnight. In hindsight, this becomes the moment so much goes wrong, and by the time the credits roll on a film that becomes increasingly difficult to watch, one might wish to go back to that moment and get Ranesha to stay home through sheer force of will (through the screen, of course). At the bar, the women meet a couple of guys there celebrating the sale of their company, and soon Ranesha’s had more to drink than she planned, taken drugs under peer pressure and, in the end, wakes up in a hotel room she doesn’t recognize next to a man to whom she didn’t give consent to do whatever it is he did to her overnight.
The bulk of Test Pattern is spent in the aftermath of Ranesha’s attack, as she arrives home to a frantic Evan and the two set out to get her the medical attention she needs. Ford’s attention to the strength and length of their bond at the film’s outset becomes a smart device to endear us to these two young people who are only trying to do what’s right after one of the most devastating (if not the most devastating) nights during their time together. As Ranesha reels from the night’s events, struggling to remember the details and generally shutting down as a form of self-preservation, Evan becomes a man on a mission, determined to get her the help she needs come hell or high water. Even this dynamic is fraught with baggage, as his insistence, well-intentioned as it is, becomes a heavy burden for her to bear. The couple must travel from clinic to clinic to find the medical attention she needs, faced at every encounter with at best incompetence, at worst a wholesale dismissal of their claims. It’s a harrowing sequence made all the more frustrating with the knowledge that it’s entirely based in reality.
Test Pattern marks Ford’s feature film directorial debut (she also wrote the script) and the film, to a certain degree, shows it. In certain moments, the script perhaps isn’t as polished as it could be, and certain music cues and character interactions feel less than smooth. Both Hall and Brill carry their roles confidently, and their rapport with each other is clearly something genuine; even in its tensest moments, they relate to each other as people who deeply care for one another. And the choices Ford makes in the film’s chronology keeps the heavy second half of the film from being almost too big a burden for an audience to bear—we get glimpses of Ranesha and Evan during happier (or at least earlier) times, reminders that these are two young people with a lot of life (and a lot of heartache) ahead of them. Despite a few hiccups, this first effort from Ford offers a promising glimpse into what may be in store for a filmmaker like Ford if she finds herself behind the camera again soon, and that’s an exciting prospect however you slice it.
Test Pattern is now streaming via Music Box Theatre’s virtual cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s closed.
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