TEST PATTERN, drama, not rated, 82 minutes, kinomarquee.com, 3.5 chiles
The defining sound of Test Pattern is loaded silence. In the movie’s first scene — of the rape of a visibly drunken, drugged Black woman — the only noise comes from the sickening, soft kisses of a slick predator. In the morning, when the woman awakens, the silence is in her wordless fear, in her thick, hungover confusion. Where is she? Where are her purse and shoes?
All Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) remembers is going to a bar for a girls’ night. The next day, she sees flashes of a man’s face hovering over hers while her White boyfriend, Evan (played with low-key charm by Will Brill), drives her from hospital to hospital as they attempt to get a rape kit. They barely speak in the car. Renesha stares out the passenger-side window, unable or unwilling to cry. She is both despondent and furious, as is Will, but for different reasons. After several failed visits to emergency rooms, she wants to go home. She’s exhausted. He insists that she needs to report her rape and let professionals gather evidence.
“Why is this so important to you?” she asks.
Writer and director Shatara Michelle Ford shows us their relationship in flashback, over a period of a few years. As they get to know each other, they try their best to treat each other with respect and to learn what that means for the other person. Hall and Brill both excel at delivering the halting confessions of early love, playing the couple in a manner that feels unusually authentic, as if they are not actors filling roles but real people trying to connect in the humid bars and the tree-lined streets of Austin. After the rape, their dynamic shifts so quickly and dramatically that it’s immediately unclear if they will survive this trauma.
Ford has created an intimate character study that feels more like a theater piece than a movie. Most of the scenes are between just two or three people, and meaning comes through the subtext of what the characters think or feel, rather than what they say. It’s a story about rape and power, as well as about race, and it will likely resonate differently with different viewers. A White man rapes Renesha. And then a White man drives her around town, for hours, in an ostensible act of rescue that’s somewhat against her will. They both know Evan is acting out of love, but who controls Renesha’s body? He cannot perceive the intensity of her suffering in the moment, just the moral imperative of legal justice, which he lays at her feet. Hall conveys a bevy of complicated emotions every time Renesha might speak, but only sighs. Rape has opened a chasm between them, and any words that might bridge it are stuck in their throats.