“Test Pattern,” Reviewed: A Brilliant Début Examines the Aftermath of Sexual


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Shatara Michelle Ford’s brilliant first feature, “Test Pattern” (which is now in virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee), follows a young woman in Austin, Texas, named Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), who meets a young man named Evan (Will Brill) at a club. A romantic relationship develops rapidly between them, and soon they’re living together. She’s a corporate-development executive; he’s a tattoo artist. She’s Black; he’s white, though they never discuss their racial identities within the film. As I watched, I found myself absorbed in their story, albeit in an unusual way. It was obvious from the start that things between the two were too good to be true, that there was unexpressed trouble in paradise. When the trouble arose, though, it felt born not of the complex idiosyncrasies of a real-life romance but of a set of systemic forces. The characters are carefully thought-out and sharply observed, and made of the discernible stuff of life, with altogether plausible intentions, interests, and emotional responses. Yet their story in “Test Pattern” feels conceived not for the purpose of revealing their inner lives alone but to put society at large to the test. The movie is, in effect, a cinematic laboratory—not an experimental film but a film that is an experiment in action. The film’s apparent realism is in the service of bold analytical abstraction.

Ford, working with the editors Katy Miller and Matt Tassone, realizes this concept with a jolting sense of form whose intellectual impact feels almost physical in its intensity. The movie’s audacious way with time and memory is evident from the very start; it begins with a scene that sets a tone, although its timing, until midway through, remains unclear—an isolated and decontextualized scene of a Black woman and a white man in an ambiguous sexual encounter. (It’s impossible to get at the ideas in “Test Pattern” in any meaningful way without discussing its major plot points, so spoilers ahead.) After entering a relationship with Evan and moving in with him, Renesha also fulfills her long-standing ambition of leaving the corporate world: she takes a job as the development director at a nonprofit. Home from her first day at work, she hears from a friend named Amber (Gail Bean), who invites her to an evening at a club, and she goes on what Evan calls a “girls’ night,” planning to keep it restrained and to avoid drinking.

At the club, Amber (who’s also Black) and Renesha discuss the politics of their daily lives. Both of their workplaces are predominantly white. Amber says that she hears her colleagues praise Donald Trump; Renesha says that she avoids discussing politics at work because, as she puts it, the nonprofit world isn’t completely liberal. They cite the death of Sandra Bland as exemplary of the benighted politics of Texas, and Amber yearns to get away, to New York or San Diego, “because Texas is going to get me killed.” As they’re talking, two white men…

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