Eighty-two minutes is not a long time. And yet Shatara Michelle Ford’s intelligent and engrossing feature debut packs an enormous amount in, while still finding room to let characters, moments and difficult, provocative issues breathe. An ostensibly small-scale drama that traces a couple of days in the aftermath of a sexual assault, it’s a remarkable display of compression and control, using one interracial relationship as a microcosm in which to observe the invisible influence of enormous, malign societal forces. “Test Pattern” — tiny, sedate yet urgent — is like the tinkling of a warning bell that somehow signals the five-alarm fire of ingrained racism, sexism and the faulty American medical and judicial systems, that rages just outside the door.
The couple are Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill) whose first meeting, first date and first night together unfold before the title card appears, but give such a clear picture of them as individuals that it would be hard not to invest in them as a pair. Hall and Brill effortlessly summon a charming, opposites-attract chemistry that more than eclipses their characters’ many disparities: Evan is a scruffy, laid-back, unambitious tattoo artist, where Renesha is beautiful, successful, living in a designery apartment with a view over Austin.
But she is also dissatisfied with her corporate lifestyle, and so her attraction to Evan’s less driven but more contented vibe is understandable, especially once they sleep together (kudos for a “seeking consent” moment that is not only not awkward but actually kinda sexy) and discover their compatibility is also physical. “You’re a freak,” giggles Renesha, from under crinkled bedsheets. “You’re … loud,” counters Evan. Next thing, they’ve moved into a little house together, Renesha has taken a new job in a non-profit, and Evan is cooking breakfast in a tatty T-shirt and apron.
These beautifully performed establishing scenes have a light, airy, quasi-indie-romance quality, or they would, if not for the marginal unease summoned by Ludovica Isidori’s camera — slightly too still, slightly too watchful — and Robert Ouyang Rusli’s excellent strings-based score, which wraps Renesha in melodic cello motifs edged in melancholy. And whatever quirky romcom notes are in the air are dispelled by the psychological horror of the night that Renesha leaves Evan at home to go out with a friend, is roofied by a stranger and wakes up in his bed.
Dazed and unsure of her own memories, Renesha makes her way back to Evan, and from here the film morphs once more, into a more procedural register as Evan drives her from monumentally unhelpful hospital to useless clinic and onward, in search of a rape kit. But again, the shift in storytelling style is deceptive: While there is definite acerbic commentary on the treatment of victims of sexual assault by medical and police authorities, the movie is more minutely involved in the effect these encounters have on the relationship dynamic. Renesha, traumatised and seemingly resigned to institutional indifference, withdraws into exhausted silences while Evan’s blustering, ineffectual frustration grows more vocal. Both reactions are relatable, yet their oppositional nature creates a rift in this otherwise loving partnership that does not seem likely to soon mend.
Ford’s shrewd use of flashback makes a persuasively pessimistic case that this schism will only work itself wider. Scenes of innocuous in-jokey coupledom that happened before the rape, and before this agonizing day of bureaucratic red-tape and systemic negligence, land differently after, with a discomfort the prior versions of themselves clearly did not feel. The inference is that intimate privacy — that is, the very freedom to create the kind of relationship you want without the interference, biases and judgments of the outside world — is a privilege that exists for interracial couples, and especially for the Black women in them, on borrowed time.
The subtle, confident storytelling is maintained right until a frustratingly curtailed, mid-air ending — perhaps the film’s sole disappointment. There is a strong case for an unresolved finale here. Given the complexity of Ford’s concerns, neatness would be all wrong. But this end arrives too abruptly, on an off-beat made especially noticeable by the cool precision of Matt Tassone and Katy Miller’s editing otherwise. Cuts slice through soundtrack cues and scene endings with razor-edged definition, while other moments are left hanging, like the borderline surreal, slow-motion waiting room scene that plays to the unexpected, almost ironic accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.
Aside from that unsatisfying ending, the solidity of the craft here restrains and contains the film the way a dam might, holding back a cascade of powerful, righteous rage behind a smoothly engineered surface. Which makes “Test Pattern” deeply impressive in its own right, but also a tantalizing, maybe even daunting, promise of what Ford might do next, if the dam breaks.