“TEST PATTERN” IS KIND OF BORING
Test Pattern is one film that will probably be polarizing for most; you will either love it or hate it.
When you watch a really good feature film, no matter its purpose—even when the motivation of the film is geared towards educating audiences about an important subject—without ever realizing it, you can absorb the film’s thematic command and surrender as it slowly burrows into the corner of your mind to talk to you. This doesn’t always require sensationalization. In fact, typically, films like this lean on great story direction and on those who are attached to the film to make sense of primary storytelling tools like the use of music, lighting, or even camera usage to really highlight the focus of the film. For instance, Sound of Metal is very naked, relying on great acting and sound to immerse audiences into Ruben’s heartbreak. Likewise, Gett offers a simple white room and a team of skilled actors to emphasize Vivanne Amsalem plight. One Thing in Miami’s story is largely contained in one space, and most of the action and comforting energy in the film comes from the atmosphere that its cast create with the animated portrayals of their characters. But sometimes, this form of drawn back storytelling can get a bit hazy when the anchor for the film, the plot, is unable to sustain interest. Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern is a bit tiresome to watch.
The 2019 film which is written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford feels more like it’s intended to be a public service announcement instead of a feature film. There’s nothing wrong with that, if that was indeed the directive for the film. After all, some films are created for the sole purpose of educating people on an area of public ignorance so as to be used later in schools or perhaps corporate educational sessions, but Test Pattern doesn’t clearly feel like it was created for that resolve. It’s this dissonance that suggests that the film feels confused about what it wants to be.
The film is an independent abstract about the vestiges of sexual assault and how it affects a heteronormative interracial couple. Exploring the malice of sexual assault as a living concept, Test Pattern insinuates that this variety of violence takes the form of a conscious consideration which we all agree to, continuously feed, and uphold through the indifferent attitude towards its existence and towards those who are pulled into victimhood. We track Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a young but highly educated black woman from Austin Texas in her everyday life and then, following a restrained anguish after a night out where she is entrapped by a stranger (Drew Fuller) who is determined to exercise hatred. The essence of Test Pattern, lies in the intention to translate how the minimization of sexual assault forces victims to adjust their distress for the people around them while coming to terms with their trauma. It purports that victims understand the politics of sex better than the systems, professionals, and the naïve relations of those who inherit their trauma.
The movie is endowed with many merits. Brittany Hall is fantastic in her role, particularly with her use of subtle expressions. Also, Will Brill complements her well in his supporting position as Evan. Further, Ford artfully addresses the failures in government by showing the tedium of seeking support for victims. But, Test Pattern has its fault. One being that it is boring and also, that Hall and Brill’s matching feels disjointed until further into the film which makes the entire scenario slightly unbelievable. More, it takes so long to get into the film and when you do, the subtle shift in dramatization isn’t nearly enough to inspire concentration.
Of course, by design, Test Pattern is naturalistic in a way that emphasizes the realistic elements of the story to allow for the possibility that Renesha’s story could be a recount of someone’s history instead of a contrived narrative. Ford has Hall in positions that humanize her character to illustrate that she has and continues to hold a firm identity pre and post trauma. We see this when Renesha is shown flirting and hoping to catch the eye of people she’s interested in. We see this also, as she continues on with her regular day, going to work, having breakfast, you know, being normal. So, it’s unfortunate that Renesha’s characterization feels almost disingenuous in the beginning, due mostly to her rushed character development. However, this lapse rumbles throughout. The tendency towards stillness in the story, marked by long moments of silence, doesn’t quite illicit the emotional pull it deserves because Renesha feels like a foreign personality in a huge chunk of the film, save for about half way through when the excitement begins and where the use of music is fantastic for creating an attached between the viewer and the scenarios on screen. At that point though, you expect a lot from the film but, after the turning point in Renesha’s story, the events that follow are unimpressive, which of course might be on purpose.
Test Pattern is one film that will probably be polarizing for most; you will either love it or hate it. Its appeal will entirely depend on your appreciation for bare bones contemporaries, the kind of movie that feels more like a documentary or a really great YouTube vlog instead of a cinematic art work. It’s not to say that it’s entirely impossible to enjoy this film especially considering the degree of care afforded to its construction. And so, this film is for the person who enjoyed Promising Young Woman or who is especially empathic. It’s also for the person who prefers to see an imitation of real life in motion pictures, a person who might be unphased about the absence of surrealism or the sense of wonder that’s true to most feature films. Still, at a fundamental level, Test Pattern is an important film because it’s blunt approach to the issue of sexual assault does exactly what Ford might have hoped to achieve: it forces audiences to stop and take a moment to deliberate on the near dystopic elements of our modern society and the harm of stoicism.