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Lost Transmissions
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by Rob Gonsalves

"You know what they say about good intentions."
2 stars

Whenever I get too exercised about how the Disney/Marvel/Star Wars axis will crush all other art and entertainment under their jackboots, along comes a tiny, well-meaning but terrible indie drama to reassure me that such things, however dreary and rare, still exist.

This month’s proof is Lost Transmissions, and the hell of it is that it’s apparently based on writer-director Katharine O’Brien’s own experiences “trying to help a friend of ours who had gone off their medication.” So I feel like a heel for sneering at it, but damn it all, this sort of story — about a smart, creative man who also contends with schizophrenia — deserves a sharper telling. It’s a wasted opportunity, despite the impassioned performances and O’Brien’s obvious genuineness of feeling.

Set in the least sunshiny Los Angeles I’ve seen since Blade Runner, the story really centers on Hannah (Juno Temple), who answers phones by day and tinkers with songwriting in her spare time. Hannah has drifted into the orbit of gregarious music producer Theo (Simon Pegg), who spots some talent in Hannah and invites her to his recording studio. Relieved, we see that this isn’t a sleazy come-on — something in her bashful singing voice seems to have touched him, and he legitimately wants to share that. Though Theo isn’t a lech, he has other issues — a victim of a bad-acid mishap back when he used to be in a band, he’s a schizophrenic, with all the paranoid delusions and preoccupation with radio static that go with it (in movies, anyway). Theo is fine when he’s on his meds. But he has a history of going off them, and he’s just recently done it again.

Hannah herself is on meds for depression, and early on, Theo low-key shames her for being on them and muting the profound feelings that could fuel her art. This is the sort of dangerous ersatz prescription that ignores the fact that most unmedicated depressives have trouble doing anything much more ambitious than getting out of bed in the morning, much less recording the great American album, but it’s also the sort of thing a guy like Theo would say. At one point, Hannah tosses out her bottle of pills, and we wait for her ability to help her friend to be negatively impacted as a result of her going off her meds. But that doesn’t happen, and we never see her going back on them, either. The perhaps unintended subtext is that some mental illnesses severely require chemical rebalance and … others don’t? I’m going to be charitable and chalk it up to scenes that had to come out to keep the movie at an hour-forty-five, with the result that some important connective tissue got thrown out with the bathwater.

If O’Brien wanted to make some trims for time, she might’ve begun with the whole subplot in which Hannah finds herself writing songs for a pop star (Alexandra Daddario, that lamp-eyed fan favorite). It’s not clear how much of a role Theo plays in Hannah’s getting this gig, though he honks a little bit about her selling out. This subplot leads nowhere special and could’ve been plucked out with no harm done to the essence and spine of the piece, which is how Hannah and her friends try to get Theo to a hospital or at least back on his meds. Hannah keeps getting thwarted, at one point finding him at a party and … eating some ‘shrooms, which isn’t very helpful. Pegg, in a rare dramatic outing, does some impressive emotional pirouettes, though the movie has been structured to let him do so. It’s an unavoidably plum role — the shrewd, poetically unbalanced artist who gets to natter on about “the princess of time” while everyone else in the movie weeps over his increasingly poor life choices. (In an earlier day, it would’ve been the Robin Williams role.) Juno Temple is positioned to take over the film, but her character is too glumly conceived; Hannah seems like a minor supporting character promoted to lead.

There’s got to be a middle ground between the horse hockey of something like A Beautiful Mind (which I did enjoy as metaphor, but it’s nobody’s idea of a plausible account of schizophrenia) and the rigorous art of Lodge Kerrigan’s dazzling Clean, Shaven, which put us right inside a schizophrenic’s seething, teeming head. It would’ve cost nothing extra to approach Lost Transmissions (a destined-to-be-misremembered title) on the script level more cleverly and even with more wit. Someone as sharp as Theo, who’s clearly been around the block a few times, would realistically foil any attempts to “betray” him as he sees it. What if the movie were more about what a doctor does late in the movie — earning trust by going along with Theo’s delusions? Hannah and her friends could then try to construct a counter-fantasy to point Theo towards the help he needs.

It would be a thin line to tread between originality and bad taste, but whichever way the movie fell might have been more engaging than what we get here.

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originally posted: 06/09/20 06:41:07
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  13-Mar-2020 (NR)



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