'Operator': SXSW Review

An emotionally insightful drama that's less sci-fi than it may sound.

Martin Starr plays a troubled programmer in a kind of reverse-'Pygmalion' for the information age.

Has South by Southwest, a film fest joined at the hip to an interactive-media conference, stealthily become the top destination for indies exploring how new tech gets between us and the ones we love? In 2014's The Heart Machine, a woman used Skype to maintain a long-distance affair built on lies; the next year, Creative Control projected porn addiction into the coming future of augmented reality. (Hey SXSW, how about a showcase for Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker?) Now we have Operator, in which a programmer building an automated telephone receptionist comes to derive more comfort from a simulacrum of his wife than from the real woman. Emotionally engrossing if not 100% persuasive in its last act, it balances techno-alienation and warmth in ways that will resonate with art-house audiences.

Following up a surprisingly effective dramatic turn as a veteran in Amira & Sam, Martin Starr plays Joe, the lead coder on a team programming a computer operator for the help line of a health-insurance company. Struggling to find a voice for his program that won't infuriate callers, he realizes he lives with the perfect model: Joe's wife Emily (Mae Whitman), whose work at the front desk of a luxury hotel has honed her abilities to soothe and solve problems. By recording her voice and studying her speech patterns, Joe thinks he can isolate and automate her people skills.

Joe is one of those quantified-self advocates who believes we'd all be wiser to analyze the data of our lives than to let emotions guide our decisions. (Watch as he wrecks a relationship by giving his co-worker's girlfriend a test to prove she's gay.) Not realizing that most humans respond poorly to his insights, Joe sees nothing wrong with asking Emily to record all her telephone calls, or with informing her that his monitoring has isolated the small collection of phrases she relies on constantly.

As Emily grows more involved with an improv theater troupe and less available to calm his panic attacks, Joe finds himself relying on the voice he has recorded: "Joe, I'm with you," it says. As often as he needs to hear it.

Kibens and Sharon Greene's screenplay is empathetic enough that we're well down the road before it occurs to us to take one character's side in the blow-up to come. Specifics notwithstanding, the couple's dilemma echoes universal ones in which one partner's fear of change clashes with another's need for self-determination. It's just that most suffocated spouses don't have to compete with an algorithm-driven perfect version of themselves.

A strong episode involving Joe's sick mother (Christine Lahti) makes this oncoming crisis all the more poignant. But when Joe truly descends into mental illness, the film stretches a notch or two past credibility for the same of heightened drama.

Sleek info-design graphics, which visualize Joe's self-tracking programs, lend stylishness to the picture and help convey how seductive data is to Joe. When the story leans toward romance-film conventions in its final scenes, these visualizations are essential to a poetic epiphany that helps Operator retain its distinctive flavor.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (Visions)
Production companies: Cruze & Company, June Pictures
Cast: Martin Starr, Mae Whitman, Nat Faxon, Cameron Esposito, Kris D. Lofton, Kate Cobb, Tim Hopper, Retta, Christine Lahti
Director-editor: Logan Kibens
Screenwriters: Sharon Greene, Logan Kibens
Producers: Aaron Cruze, Logan Kibens
Executive producers: Andrew Duncan, Sharon Greene, Felipe A. Dieppa
Director of photography: Steeven Petitteville
Production designer: Paris Pickard
Costume designer: Tasha Goldthwait
Composer: Sage Lewis

Casting director: Barbara J. McCarthy
Sales: Jessica Lacy and Peter Van Steemburg, ICM

Not rated, 90 minutes