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When two musicians meet for the first time at a piano, wondering what song they should play together, perhaps a quiet alarm should go off when one mentions a Daniel Johnston tune and the other knows it by heart. The cult songwriter’s career has been famously hobbled by mental illness, and while emotional pain is central to many of his songs’ beauty, no rational artist would follow in his footsteps by choice. Observing as one of those musicians (Simon Pegg) suffers a breakdown and the other (Juno Temple) struggles to keep him safe, Katharine O’Brien’s Lost Transmissions neither sensationalizes nor romanticizes the illness. Quite unlike the non-genre roles Pegg has taken in between appearances in big-budget franchise films, this part requires him to look inward; the modest but heartfelt picture clearly cares more about empathy than acting awards, and should play well with those who recognize loved ones’ struggles on the screen.
Pegg’s Theo was in “one of the craziest bands of the ’90s,” we’re told, before “bad acid or something” triggered a schizophrenic episode. Now he’s in Los Angeles, occasionally recording young bands in his home studio while his circle of friends dreads the next time they’ll have to babysit him through a bad spell. Hannah has been on anti-depressants since 22, and the two have barely started working together when Theo suggests she might want to stop taking them. It’s a “shame to live with a filter,” he suggests, especially for a creative person. But the two get a good deal of recording done (and Theo hooks Hannah up with a promising songwriting client) before she has to see the effect removing the filter sometimes has on her new friend.
The two are in Hannah’s car one day when Theo grows increasingly distant, playing with the radio and claiming to hear patterns in the static between stations. Later he’ll say he can feel radio waves and ripples in space-time; he’ll ramble in fragments about a princess who apparently represents a woman he once was in love with. All of Theo’s grown-up friends have reasons they can’t take him in right now, so Hannah accepts the responsibility, despite her own shaky emotional state.
As it establishes where its characters stand, the film makes no effort to fill dead air. There’s a subtle electric buzz where we might expect a score, and dreary colors where we wish for SoCal sun. O’Brien’s efforts to echo Hannah’s mildly numbed state aren’t heavy-handed, and they underline how challenging it is for the young woman to navigate the healthcare system. She can get Theo into a hospital, but he’s self-aware enough to tell doctors what they want to hear; nobody thinks he’s sick enough to commit involuntarily. Failing that, she tries to convince him to return to family in London, where she’s told it would be easier to get him treatment. Here, Theo objects more directly, and acts out in ways that suggest we’re about to see two people spiraling into the void instead of one.
The action grows dire, but not outrageously so. As in Daniel Johnston’s case, casual acquaintances who don’t understand the seriousness of an illness can unwittingly cause enormous trouble when trying to help — or when they think others’ interventions represent patronizing attempts to control a loved one. Pegg spends much of his time in an unshowy dissociation, making no identifiable play for the viewer’s sympathy; as for Hannah, Temple seems to understand that most of the character’s own needs won’t be addressed until the current crisis is past. Hopeful but not too tidy, Lost Transmissions tells its story without engaging with foolish cliches about creativity and madness.
Production company: Royal Road Entertainment
Cast: Simon Pegg, Juno Temple, Alexandra Daddario, Tao Okamoto, Bria Vinaite, Robert Schwartzman
Director-screenwriter: Katharine O’Brien
Producers: Al Di, Olga Kagan, Filip Jan Rymsza, Tory Lenosky
Executive producers: Thomas Benski, Brian Levy, Bo An, Alan Li, Katharine O’Brien, Robert Schwartzman
Director of photography: Arnau Valls Colomer
Production designer: Tom Castronovo
Costume designer: Malcolm Bacani
Editor: Yannis Chalkiadakis
Composer: Hugo Nicolson
Casting directors: Kate Geller, Jessica Kelly
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative)
Sales: Grace Royer, UTA
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