The Heart Machine: SXSW Review

The Heart Machine - H - 2014
An unsettling new twist on age-old themes.

Zachary Wigon's debut explores deception in the age of online dating.

AUSTIN — In the new subgenre of films, some gimmicky and some serious, about relationships in the age of social media, few integrate the new with the eternal as seriously as The Heart Machine, Zachary Wigon's look at a long-distance relationship that isn't everything it seems. A thoughtful, emotionally tricky debut benefitting from two strong lead performances, its already substantial appeal to young audiences is enhanced by the presence of John Gallagher, Jr., costar of last year's SXSW breakout Short Term 12 and HBO's The Newsroom.

Gallagher plays a New Yorker, Cody, who's enduring a long separation from girlfriend Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) while she lives in Berlin for a project. We observe sweet Skype conversations that suggest their lives are well entwined despite the distance, but at the same time there's something off: When sirens wail outside Virginia's apartment during a call, why does Cody later search for audio recordings of German emergency vehicles?

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For reasons that aren't clear, Cody suspects what we very soon know is true: Virginia isn't in Berlin, but instead lives just a few stops on the L train from Cody's Bushwick apartment. She's in the East Village, maintaining a different set of friends and using hookup apps to have sex with strangers.

Anyone without our perspective would be inclined to accuse Cody of borderline-crazy jealous paranoia. Part of the film's intrigue is the idea that the character is simultaneously crazy and correct: Gallagher, putting aside the emotional availability that has been so winning elsewhere, becomes a convincing creep as Cody bikes down streets, looking for signs of Virginia's presence, and insinuating himself into lives of people who might know her. These exchanges go up to the border between everyday awkwardness and intense psychodrama, but The Heart Machine stops well short of becoming a stalker film.

Sheil has a tougher job, as her character's motives are opaque — perhaps even to herself, which again is the point. The film embodies dilemmas that aren't exactly new but have metastasized in the era of online personals and quick-match apps: Like many young, single citydwellers, she knows on some deep level that she can't have everything. But she's going to try, without admitting this agenda to herself, even if that means she winds up with nothing worth having.

Production Company: Parts and Labor

Cast: John Gallagher, Jr., Kate Lyn Sheil, David Call, Louisa Krause, Roderick Hill, Halley Wegryn-Gross, Libby Woodbridge

Director-Screenwriter: Zachary Wigon

Producers: Lucas Joaquin, Alex Scharfman

Executive producers: Jay Van Hoy, Lars Knudsen, Jordan Lewis, Abe Schwartz, Andrew Kelley, Eric Schultz

Director of photography: Rob Leitzell

Production designer: Alexandra Schaller

Music: Chris White

Costume designer: Tere Duncan

Editors: Louise Ford, Ron Dulin

Sales: Megan Oliver and Ben Weiss, Paradigm

No rating, 85 minutes