When you think back to the beginning of the #MeToo movement, your mind perhaps goes to the high-profile men who were exposed for their history of sexual assault. After all, celebrities such as Harvey Weinstein made headlines because of the media’s focus on their fall from grace. But for me what was so moving about that period was how the hashtag inspired people from all walks of life to take to social media to tell their own stories of surviving sexual assault. It was a stunning outpouring: So many friends and colleagues I cared about — many of them women — had the courage to reveal something painful I had never known about them.
I felt sad and angry because of what they’d endured, but I also felt powerless since there was nothing I could do to change what had happened. As sensitive as I like to think I am, I was struck by what a musty old patriarchal instinct that was — I’ve got to take care of this person’s problem! — and it was a shameful reminder that men are bad at being helpless. We’re sometimes a little slow to realize that we can’t fix everything — or that it’s not always about us.
The remarkable Test Pattern, which is available for rental through virtual cinemas right now, is a piercing examination of race, class, gender and the American health-care system. Writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s feature debut tells the story of Renesha (Brittany S. Hall), a Black Austinite who starts dating Evan (Will Brill), a white tattoo artist. He’s a sweet, somewhat socially awkward individual — he’s one of the good guys — but when Renesha is raped during a night out with a gal friend, Evan responds in a recognizable but ultimately unhelpful manner. He wants to save the day. He wants to be the knight in shining armor. It’s a commendable instinct. But Ford’s film illustrates why his noble intentions are all wrong. Through Renesha’s eyes, we see the severe limitations of what it means to be “a good guy.”
Running less than 80 minutes, not including end credits, this low-budget indie packs a lot in a short amount of time, and when it’s over its implications linger, leaving you to ponder what has happened — and what isn’t being said. When Test Pattern begins, Renesha is out with friends at a restaurant/bar, dancing the night away. She’s approached by Evan, who’s been eyeing her from a table where he’s been hanging out with his buds. They dance a little, and later as he’s leaving, he sheepishly asks for her number. She gives it to him — why not, he seems harmless.
Not long after, she randomly runs into Evan on her way to the grocery store, and she confronts him for not calling like he said he would — maybe he’s just a typically maddening man sending mixed signals. Embarrassed, Evan insists that he wasn’t blowing her off — he just felt anxious about phoning since he’s not the type to pick up women at bars and wasn’t confident about his next move. She decides to give him another chance, we see snippets of a couple early dates — the first time they start making out in her bedroom, gentleman that he is, Evan asks permission before he undresses her — before a flash-forward shows them now as a happy live-in couple. It’s good she didn’t give up on this bashful dude. He seems like a keeper: attentive, loving, supportive, the whole package.
But this is Renesha’s story, and it soon takes a tragic turn. Coaxed out on a work night by her close friend Amber (Gail Bean), they end up at a bar where they’re chatted up by Mike (Drew Fuller) and Chris (Ben Levin) — the sort of tech-bro douchebags Renesha is smart enough to see right through. But wanting to be a good wingwoman to Amber, who’s into Chris, Renesha stays longer than she’d like. A few drinks and an edible later, though, she’s disoriented and back at Mike’s place, waking up in his bed the next morning. What happened? She can’t remember, and she’s so shellshocked — not to mention mortified — that when she gets back home, she doesn’t quite know what to say to Evan, who’d been worried sick. But he quickly assesses the situation and springs into action: She’s been sexually assaulted, and they need to go to the hospital to get her a rape kit.
Ford deceptively plays into certain traditional narrative gender roles once Test Pattern’s procedural-like plot kicks in. Because Renesha is still groggy from the night before, Evan takes charge, driving her to the hospital and being incredibly assertive when they arrive. He has to help his girlfriend! He has to save the day! Renesha is hesitant — something seems to be holding her back from being as animated as her boyfriend is — and Ford shapes these scenes in such a way that they come across as Evan being the big hero. Gosh, what woman wouldn’t want such a gallant man coming to her rescue in her moment of need?
Complications soon arise, and not just because of Evan. Reminiscent of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Test Pattern is partly a study of how bureaucracies fail those most imperiled. Turns out, going to the hospital to get a rape kit isn’t so simple, and Ford meticulously chronicles the building aggravation that Renesha and especially Evan experience as they keep being rebuffed. At their first stop, they’re told that there’s no one on hand who does “things like that” — and when they drive across town to a hospital that supposedly does, they’re informed that this facility doesn’t anymore, either. All the while, Renesha has to carry around an open plastic cup full of her urine because Evan insists that the doctors will need it for the rape kit. (He sees it as crucial evidence. Without ever saying a word, Renesha makes it clear she views it as a very public, humiliating reminder of her terrible ordeal.)
The angrier Evan gets — why doesn’t anybody care about helping his girlfriend? — the more Renesha begins to pull away from him. And by the time he impulsively grabs his phone and calls the police, frantically announcing that he’d like to report a rape, it inspires her to walk out of the waiting room they’re sitting in. He’s baffled by her reaction, but anyone watching Test Pattern won’t be. He’s so invested in taking on her attack as his own hardship that she’s practically invisible to him — he’s not really paying attention to how she’s feeling or what she’s going through. He’s too busy trying to fix things to be there for her.
Ford occasionally utilizes flashbacks to give us brief, seemingly innocuous but incredibly telling moments in Renesha and Evan’s relationship. It’s strange to call them spoilers, but revealing what happens in those flashbacks would muffle Test Pattern’s impact precisely because, depending on your perspective, what happens in those moments might not appear to be a big deal. But in the context of the characters’ day-long odyssey to track down a rape kit, they’re informative, suggesting a pattern of behavior within this outwardly loving relationship that’s rife with unhealthy gender dynamics — as well as serving as a warning about the traps “good guys” can fall into because they’re convinced they’re good guys.
It’s a sad irony of this quietly despairing film that, in the grand scheme of things, yes, Evan is a “better” man than the tech-bro who raped Renesha — but by being so convinced that he’s “better,” Evan actually does a disservice to the girlfriend he thinks he’s rescuing. Evan is the more proactive character in Test Pattern’s second half — he’s the one driving the plot forward — but he’s doing more harm than good. Although Renesha gets quieter and quieter, Hall’s devastating performance communicates everything that this assault survivor is thinking. It doesn’t matter if Evan finds her a rape kit. It doesn’t matter that he’s trying to make everything all right. Because of her skin color, because she’s a woman, because of the way society treats rape accusations, Renesha is resigned from the start to what this film’s ending will be.
And no good guy can possibly fix that.