Shatara Michelle Ford
Writer-director Shatara Michelle Ford’s Test Pattern follows Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) as she and her live-in boyfriend, Evan (Will Brill), cope with her being drugged and sexually assaulted after an encounter at a bar. With their decidedly spare point of view, Hitchcockian influences and pensive frames, Ford epitomizes a New Generation filmmaker who isn’t afraid to let the visuals speak for themselves.
The protracted tension throughout Test Pattern is hard to pin down yet simultaneously fills out each frame. There are the obvious structural tensions of navigating a medical system that doesn’t make it easy for sexual-assault survivors seeking trauma-informed care. And the limits of police investigation when a victim has been drugged and memory fails.
But it’s the tension below the surface that comes from things left unsaid between Renesha and Will that strikes the biggest blow. They can toss feathery “I love you’s” back and forth every few minutes, but they can’t talk about the hard things: her well-paying job compared to his gig wages as a tattoo artist, her Blackness, his whiteness, the ways he seeks to possess and brand her body, and of course what to do about the rape. And, with few spurts of dialogue, Ford adeptly serves up this feast of the unsaid for the audience to wrestle with in all its gut-wrenching discomfort.
The careful push-ins and camera placements in Test Pattern keep the viewer at a precise distance, offering its protagonist a privacy and respect that hospitals and law enforcement — and Evan, with his blind investment in said institutions — mostly fail at. The movie respects her boundaries, always centering her point of view even if the world she’s living in does not.
It all adds up to a stunning debut from a promising voice in Ford that’s as measured as it is unflinching.
— Beandrea July
Prayers for the Stolen
It’s dangerous to be a girl in many places around the world. Prayers for the Stolen takes an unwavering look at one of those places, and the result is a cinematic experience that burrows under our skin and lodges itself in our hearts.
Deep in the mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero — a place of stunning beauty and daily terror — Ana and her mother live in the crosshairs of vicious drug cartels and ineffectual lawmen. Ana, Paula and Maria, the three best friends in Prayers for the Stolen, attend school occasionally, interrupted when their teachers are massacred. Just when they should be thinking about expressing their burgeoning adolescent identity, the girls’ fearful mothers disguise their daughters as sons, desperate to keep them from the rapacious grasp of ruthless men who prey on pubescent girls. A nearly wordless scene in which Ana’s long hair is shorn, as she watches with tear-filled eyes, speaks volumes. When a fleet of SUVs careens into their village, the girls are rushed into makeshift hideouts — not unlike early graves — where they remain motionless, hidden from the covetous reach of the men barreling by.
Director Tatiana Huezo’s meticulously observed film, adapted from Jennifer Clement’s novel Noche de Fuego, is a mesmerizing portrait of friendship, sorrow and resilience. As grim as their lives are, the trio finds laughter in the bonds of friendship and wonder in the nature surrounding them. Huezo’s skill with young actors is powerfully evident, as she draws deeply moving performances from a youthful cast.
Prayers for the Stolen is a slow burn of a film, infused with a palpable sense of dread. Marked by naturalistic acting and stunning cinematography, Huezo’s is a fictional story girded by tragic realities. Violence is rampant, and inequity is a fact of life among the verdant hillsides dotted with radiant red poppies that federal police spray with poison, endangering the villagers in a useless attempt to stop the drug trade. Casual beauty flourishes amid hideous cruelty. Hope can exist in the heart of despair. A consummate storyteller, Huezo captures it all.
And we savor every frame. Huezo focuses her prodigious talents on telling the stories of those too often overlooked in film — young women of color. Prayers for the Stolen breaks our hearts as it opens our eyes to a world where unspeakable violence is a regular occurrence. Huezo’s harrowing yet humanistic storytelling is a masterful and deeply moving achievement.
— Claudia Puig