Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 18, 2021 11:04 am 
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Invaded lives

Test Pattern leaves you hanging, and I guess it's meant to be that way. This is about date rape and how it hits an interracial couple living in Austin, Texas. The film has a careful setup: its first forty minutes are neatly packed. Evan (Will Brill) is a white guy, a tattoo artist, who seeks out the beautiful Renesha (Brittany S. Hall of HBO's "Ballers"), getting her phone number at a watering place. He follows up quickly, they have dinner in an Asian restaurant, they like each other, they promise to be faithful forever. Why must it be so fast and so strong? Because of the way the relationship is tested, whose intensity we cannot question, though the outcome we'll neve quite know. Now as Evan and Renesha are living together and she has gone to her first day as a fund raiser at the Humane Society, her switch from corporate to caring, her friend Amber (Gail Bean), that night, insists Renesha join her at a "social club," an Austin feature Evan hates. So he lets her go alone. It is already an evening fraught with inappropriateness - Monday night, her first days at a new job, Evan's absence; yet at the same time it could be completely harmless.

Amber and Renesha have a little conversation about Trump racism and the case of Sandra Bland. They're approached by a couple of white men who say they're celebrating their e-commerce sale that day. Renesha and Amber agree to join them, but Renesha refuses to drink. Then she refuses to take eatable marijuana. Then she refuses to dance. But gives in to all these things. Tequila, Champagne, psychedelics: it's a rapid, dangerous mix and these men are smooth, good looking, accomplished. From then on, Renesha doesn't remember what happened, but she has flashes to recall to her that Mike (Drew Fuller) fucked her.

What happens to the ubiquitous smart phone in all this, one has to wonder. Well, this qualifies as an assault, and for those first of all you're disarmed. Somehow all Renesha's "stuff" winds up in the hands of Amber, whom Evan, frantic, finds throwing up in the parking lot of the "Hacienda Social Club." Mike drives Renesha to Amber's house the next morning. That's the first forty minutes.

All the private scenes are marked by intimacy and lush beauty in the cinematography that show how nice closeness can be when it's right. Will Brill, in this role, is notably down home, with a trailer park quality, rolled up jeans, torn T shirts, the unshaven look. He stammers a little; he comes off as authentic, and this is set to contrast with the two men at the social club, who come from a slicker, more privileged, more self-serving world, dangerous men.

From here on the movie turns down a road that made me think at first of the Romanian director Cristi Puiu's famous 2005 dark comedy The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu, about an old guy who's feeling unwell as an evening begins, and at the end of a night of going the rounds of hospitals that can't help him, dies. Evan insists that he and Renesha go at once to a hospital for a "rape kit," a sexual assault forensic exam. It's not as bad as what happens to Mr. Lăzărescu, but Renesha and Evan are shuttled from hospital to hospital to hospital, and at the end of this ordeal it may be their relationship that has died. Certainly they are both exhausted, he is angry; she is frustrated and increasingly hopeless.

Eventually after hours of wantdering and waiting they find a hospital with a qualified SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) person on hand. The fact that numerous hospitals don't have nurses with this qualification is another example of America's badly prepared healthcare system. TimesUp and #MeToo raise their heads here, and we can assume, though it's never quite explicit, and not just because this is Texas, that Renesha has gotten the runaround in part because of her color. This film staggers and almost loses its footing from the power of the general issues it takes up. Ford's film manages to remain foregrounded, but only just, by its couple and its specific events and not merely the issues of inadequate healthcare and race and gender discrimination.

Though he is the one who pushes for it and, against Renesha's initial will, calls the police to report a rape, Evan hasn't the language or the moves to deal with this situation. And after she gets the test, one feels neither Evan, nor Renesha's friend Amber, nor the SANE nurse is enough to give Renesha all he help she needs. We don't know what either Evan or Renesha is thinking, and they don't have words for it. The film doesn't preach. It lets the viewer do the thinking.

Shatara Michelle Ford, whose feature debut this is, has acknowledged finding initial inspiration in the Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers or the L.A. Rebellion. But when they were in decline she decided to study screenwriting in the UK, where she was near acknowledged influences, Andrea Arnold, Steve McQueen, and Lynne Ramsay, fine sources indeed and ones that signal her independence from Hollywood. She has also said she is reading the work of black feminist activist Audre Lorde. There may be some problems with pacing and dialogue along the way (sometimes, after the rape, I couldn't hear what Renesha was saying), but there is no doubt about the economy of writing and beauty of execution, part of whose object is to show that intimacy remains a lovely thing when it's safe and true. An intense, yet understated film that represents a solid if quiet beginning.

Test Pattern, 82 mins., debuted at Ford's home base, Philadelphia (Blackstar Film Festival) Oct. 2019 where it won the Lionsgate/STARZ Producer Award, showing also in at least 9 other US fests, New Orleans (best narrative feature), Annapolis, Atlanta, Mill Valley, Montclair, Virginia, St. Louis, many of these virtual, in 2020. Watched on a screener provided to me through the courtesy of David Ninh of Kino Lorber. Metascore: was 69% at time of writing; now (June 2021) 81%. Available in Virtual Cinemas through Kino Marquee from Fri., Feb. 19, 2021.

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