'Lapsis': Film Review | SXSW 2020

LAPSIS Still 1 - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Noah Hutton
A smart, class-conscious sci-fi parable.

Noah Hutton imagines a near future in which humans compete with robots in a grueling workplace.

[Note: In the wake of SXSW's cancellation this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to screen online for critics.]

A narrative feature debut informed by its maker's previous documentaries about the oil industry, Noah Hutton's Lapsis takes a sci-fi look at another kind of resource-extraction boom and the workers being exploited in it. Here, a revolution in the way computers work creates a market for innumerable cables from one point to another; freelancers must compete with both humans and robots as they weave those cables across challenging terrain. Payment is precarious in a system that's obviously inspired by today's real gig-work arena, allowing Hutton to champion the underclass without seeming strident. Modest but engaging, the film avoids the sterile, placeless vibe that sometimes characterizes speculative tales like this. Here's hoping that what's left of the fest circuit in 2020 can help it reach enough people to justify a second feature for the director.

Our protagonist isn't the typical sci-fi hero. Ray (newcomer Dean Imperial) is a pudgy, middle-aged New Yorker from an unfashionable corner of Queens. He's so far behind the technological curve that he doesn't even have the kind of new, quantum computer that can access city web sites. But quantum computing is about to change his life.

Ray's brother Jamie (Babe Howard) suffers from a mysterious new chronic-fatigue illness and requires expensive care. So Ray decides to try "cabling," a field in which a person with no special skills can make thousands of dollars in a weekend. (The cables they're running, between giant terminals in the woods, are somehow enabling a new kind of high-speed stock trading on Wall Street.)

As with taxi drivers in New York, doing this work requires a hard-to-get "medallion" credential. Ray obtains his illicitly from a sketchy acquaintance, who in return requires Ray to kick back a percentage of his income. Ray's medallion previously belonged to someone called Lapsis Beeftech, a name that will elicit mysterious anger among the new cablers Ray meets.

As he learns the job — it's mostly hiking through the woods, dragging a spool of black cable behind you — Ray sees how his employers squeeze every bit of performance they can get out of workers. An app tracks his walking pace, urging him to hurry up with faux-empowering messages like "Challenge your status quo!" and "Continue your adventure!"; if he pauses to catch his breath, it loudly chirps, "Rest denied!" Well, at least he's not stuck in an Amazon warehouse.

As with so many freelance environments, employees have opposing incentives. They compete with each other for high-paying routes, but their larger interests would be served by sharing information about the job's stranger quirks — like those robot workers that threaten to steal your route while you sleep at night. As he crosses paths with younger, more savvy cablers (like Madeline Wise's Anna), Ray realizes there's much he doesn't understand about the business controlling his fate.

Hutton makes the most of that mysterious unease, building an air of tech-capitalist-conspiracy at odds with the story's lushly forested setting. Parallels with the real world abound — the monopoly that controls the cabling industry has a motto, "Always do the right thing," as ironic as Google's pledge not to be evil. But the film is subtle when it matters, as when Anna confronts Ray about the unearned advantages he has on the job. The two do team up, of course, as Ray begins to see the battle lines of a class war he didn't realize he was part of. Anyone expecting his first skirmishes to resolve with no ambiguity probably isn't living in the real world.

Production company: Couple 3 Films
Cast: Dean Imperial, Madeline Wise, Babe Howard, Ivory Aquino, Dora Madison, James McDaniel, Frank Wood, Arliss Howard
Director-screenwriter-editor-composer: Noah Hutton
Producers: Jesse Miller, Joseph Varca
Executive producers: Alexandra Winter, Rich Winter
Director of photography: Mike Gomes
Production designer: Alexander Linde
Costume designer: Sandy Siu
Casting director: Erica A. Hart
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)

104 minutes