Director: Katharine O’Brien
Stars: Juno Temple, Simon Pegg, Alexandra Daddario
It was only this weekend just gone that I was lounging at home, revisiting itchy 2013 psychological thriller Magic Magic and wondering “where has Juno Temple gone?”. Having impressed greatly in that movie and several others in the first half of the last decade, the last time I saw her was in ill-fated HBO series Vinyl. One of the most promising actors of her generation, I suddenly felt her presence sorely missing in the current landscape.
And now, bam, here she is. Temple plays Hannah, a once-aspiring singer/songwriter who’s former itch is encouraged when she meets LA music producer Theo Ross (Simon Pegg). Theo encourages Hannah not only to record her songs, but to come off of her anti-depressants. Hannah is cautious about this move, but Theo is not. A schizophrenic himself, he goes off the deep end, leaving his friends to pick up the pieces. Hannah, meanwhile, finds herself encouraged to write material for established pop phenomenon Dana Lee (Alexandra Daddario in a minor role).
Temple has a habit of playing emotionally vulnerable people, and so it goes again here. Hannah’s attachment to Theo is cemented early on and, as he runs fast off the rails, Temple plays her as visibly aggrieved. She sees a version of herself in her new friend – a possible future – and, more then twenty years his junior, she quickly assumes the role of parent in their relationship. My bias already established at the top of this review, it’s perhaps no surprise to find me saying she’s astounding, ranging from quietly enclosed to emotionally gregarious. The role offers her plenty.
First-time feature writer/director Katharine O’Brien sets her stall just above the level of mumblecore. She has a range of short films to her name already, and it shows in the quiet confidence of many of her shooting choices for Lost Transmissions. She knows what she wants her picture to look and feel like. This is low-key and intimate drama. She favours handheld, and gets in among her actors. Those seeking a reference point might consider Mike Cahill (Another Earth) shorn of his sci-fi trappings.
Mental health is sensitive territory to wade into with such abandon, and the question of whether to medicate and for how long differs from person to person. Lost Transmissions – named for the messages Theo senses in radio static – posits the argument as something of an all-or-nothing. Hannah is for medicating. Theo against. The result is an unfortunate sense of over-simplification. Then there’s a risky suggestion of schizophrenia as being in some way infectious. Hannah starts ‘hearing’ the radio waves that Theo experiences. Transference is a natural part of empathy, and hopefully this is the intention here. The alternative is a regressive stance of being ‘tarred with the mad brush’ – something that ought to have been put to rest long ago.
What is on the table is an angry critique of US health care’s failing approach to the challenges of mental illness (something not much more advanced on this side of the Atlantic, in fairness). “Theo’s sick,” a doctor advises Hannah, “He’s just not sick enough”. Care is reduced to a numbers game, with plenty of gaps for people like Theo to slip through. The precarious middle-ground of being unwell yet functional. And, briefly, an all-too-timely scare over the impulsive nature of the LAPD adds a sense of contemporary pressure to the mix.
Theo’s shift from well to not is sudden and runs close to daytime TV cliché on occasion. But the slightly roughshod material is gifted a genuinely surprising performance. Pegg has rarely been asked this much of a role, coming from cult British sitcoms and sketch shows and progressing – a little improbably – into bumbling comic relief for Hollywood franchise fare. This is the first time this viewer can recall seeing him pitched at something more earthen, with genuine stakes. It suits him. When Theo gets talking passionately about radio waves at the end of a game of “I Spy” (played, recklessly, without the alphabet!)… Pegg soars.
This is a nicely-scaled debut from O’Brien. Intimate and humane. If the score below seems relatively low, it is because of the occasional stutters of intention and the promise of greater things in the years to come from an emerging talent. For Pegg, one hopes this is the start of a late bloom. And for Temple? Hopefully this will help remind filmmakers out there what a weapon she can be when properly wielded.
(Did I simp enough yet?)