Lost Transmissions, 2020.
Written and Directed by Katharine O’Brien.
Starring Simon Pegg, Juno Temple, Alexandra Daddario, Tao Okamoto, Bria Vinaite, Robert Schwartzman, Jamie Harris, Danny Ramirez, Jacob Loeb, and Rebecca Hazlewood.
When an acclaimed music producer goes off his medication for schizophrenia, his friends chase him though the LA music scene to help commit him to a psychiatric hospital, revealing the troubling inadequacies of our mental health care system.
Perhaps more compelling than the hardships of a schizophrenic man rapidly disassociating from reality and a young woman with a history of mental illness herself desperately trying to get him under control and back on his medication (arguably the best performances to date from both Simon Pegg and Juno Temple, which is high praise considering the latter has one of the most impressive resumes of any modern-day actors out there), is the out-in-the-open but restrained criticism of, particularly America’s, systemic failure at treating these patients.
Writer and director Katharine O’Brien’s (making her debut full-length feature after a handful of shorts) Lost Transmissions is still fixated on music producer Theo Ross’ (Simon Pegg) mental deterioration, but not to the degree that one might expect from reading the synopsis or having the general knowledge that the comedian is in rare form putting in a starring dramatic performance. His schizophrenia is not used to give a showy turn, although there are moments where the metaphorical cracks further fracture causing him to act unpredictable and typically get himself into trouble (there’s a segment where Theo gets into an altercation with the police as his friend pleads to the officers regarding his diagnosis, and it’s both stressful and feels real without going off the rails into disrespectful camp).
Instead, his character is explored sometimes from afar and from the perspective of new music collaborator and friend Hannah (Juno Temple), as both her and the audience increasingly are put into a state of disbelief that this man basically can’t get help from his remaining friends, family overseas in London, or the American government itself. Even better, it’s a study of that failure without outrage or anger, sticking to the method of showing viewers just how fucked this all is. One could argue that there are a few contrivances with how Theo can go from sincerely believing that there are hidden radio frequencies within the world and that everyone is out to kill him to having the awareness to essentially trick doctors into believing he is stable and not required to stay in a mental hospital, but it’s another layer of how deep the suffering goes.
As for Hannah, she makes the acquaintance of Theo at a party seemingly for those either in the music industry or looking to break into it, coming together to perform a piano rendition of a Daniel Johnston song. Theo is immediately impressed with her vocals, but when the two start hanging out at his studio (which he uses to mix and record songs for up-and-coming bands), he also becomes fascinated by her songwriting abilities and skill for composing music. Soon after, he introduces her to more contacts with hopes of getting her a record deal, although momentarily she ends up writing songs for a self-absorbed and egotistical pop star named Dana Lee (Alexandra Daddario cast way against type and doing a fine job in the supporting role of a stuck-up singer).
Shit doesn’t really hit the fan until the two begin talking about their medications, more specifically, Theo’s belief that prescription medication puts a filter over one’s own life preventing them from enjoying it to the fullest. It’s also implied that he believes artists work better without such medication, but Katharine O’Brien wisely never turns Lost Transmissions into a movie about tortured artists and suffering for that art. It poses questions about the side effects of medication, but never preaches in any direction.
There’s just no time to do such a thing; Hannah is often at her wits end struggling to better someone that has not only gifted her valuable career opportunities out of his own natural kindness but has also become a genuine friend and is a warm soul that likes to make jokes whenever he has the filters up, to paraphrase his own words. Obviously, Hannah isn’t entirely sure what she is getting into when she takes on the mentally draining job of essentially being his adult guardian, resulting in a performance that gradually adds another form of pain, believably capturing the helplessness of being unable to properly assist someone she cares about (they never become anything more than friends, which is another smart move on the part of Katharine O’Brien).
Technically, Lost Transmissions is also effective, complete with shaky camera movements that resemble the waning sanity of Theo. The score from Hugo Nicolson is dreamy, doing a good job of symbolically blurring the lines between Theo’s reality and unhinged imagination. Katharine O’Brien also capitalizes on the musical talents of these characters, giving Juno Temple a variety of original (at least to my knowledge) songs to sing with a final rendition that, if the film were being distributed by a wider studio, would probably generate some awards traction. Regardless, it deserves to be in that conversation as Juno Temple outstandingly unleashes all kinds of acting tools here. As an aside, the film also contains a tiny role for The Florida Project star Bria Vinaite, which is a satisfying thing to see even if it’s a crime she’s not getting more work.
More than a study of a schizophrenic off his meds and the observations of a sympathetic friend, Lost Transmissions is a sophisticated condemnation of the American healthcare system backed up by a pair of top-tier career performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com