While the movie LOST TRANSMISSIONS begins playful enough, with a charming musician, Theo (Simon Pegg), owning the room with joke-y songs about his friends, with a woman, Hannah (Juno Temple), joining him to break the mold with a tender rendition of Daniel Johnston “True Love Will Find You in the End.” But a movie that illuminates the struggles of mental illness, a broken system and, most so, the challenges a friend goes through to navigate it all, is destined to be as difficult to watch as it surely was for all involved to make. This is it’s purpose, strength, and the ultimate challenge for audiences to overcome who might be used to more romanticized takes on mental illness.
Inspired by a true story, LOST TRANSMISSIONS centers mostly on Hannah, a quiet, somewhat reserved woman who is struggling to find some rhythm to her life, having spent years medicating to handle diagnosed depression. At a party, she meets Theo, a musician, producer and all-around person of the opposite sort to Hannah, who gets the party going with his endless charm and musical chops. Seeing a spark in Hannah, he brings her in to record some songs, mining the creativity in her and kickstarting her own music career. As soon as her new chapter gets going, she discovers Theo is suffering from a case of schizophrenia, the result of being given some bad acid during his rock n’ roll days, and has been off his medication. While this does result in some unique creative energy from him, it’s clear he can be both a danger to himself and others, and Hannah must give everything she has to try and get him the help he needs.
Avoiding the pitfalls of cloying, overwrought sentimentality that could lessen the importance of tackling the subject matter, writer/director Katharine O’Brien opts for a grounded, unflinchingly sober presentation of mental illness and all the tolls it can take. In keeping the story almost entirely focused on Hannah and Theo, there’s a clash of realities and struggles as the former does what she can to try to keep the two of them afloat, while the latter can’t help but escape his mind and refuses to seek help. It’s a dark, taxing story, plotted out as a back and forth as Hannah chases Theo down, argues with him and tries to manage a songwriting career on top of it all, which pairs her with Katy Perry-esque popstar, Dana Lee (Alexandra Daddario). It’s a lot of pain and anguish to put on a viewer, but when it’s at its strongest is when it’s showcasing the performers who put themselves through the trials.
Pegg and Temple are operating at such incredible levels of emotional commitment, diving unafraid into the turmoil each of their characters are. Hannah is scared, shy and completely in over her head — especially as she has to deal with a broken healthcare system that fails Theo so much — but also undaunted as she tries to give him help when his closest friends may have given up long ago. It’s easy to view her as stubborn, refusing to see him as a potential lost cause, but it’s hard not to root for her, even if the movie itself has a tone and approach that doesn’t hint at anything hopeful on the horizon. Temple gets the material to stretch her wings like never before, containing a volcano of pent up frustration and sadness, letting it erupt in small ways when with Pegg’s Theo. As for him, audiences more familiar with the actor’s comedy work and voyages on the Enterprise will walk away completely blown away by how far he pushes himself here. Pegg’s natural amiability is perfect for Theo, a man so charming he can talk his way out of psychiatric examinations, and he shows his range as a dramatic actor by teetering effortlessly between fits of rage, creative musings and pure fantastical ramblings – all the result of his illness.
Watching these two go back and forth and push themselves into compelling territory – and all through cinematographer Arnau Valls Colomer’s handheld approach that lends an air of authenticity – is reason enough to give TRANSMISSIONS your time. That’s even when the pacing and structure can’t help but work against what O’Brien is trying to capture, which is to cast a spotlight on mental illness, the relationships between the people with them, and the system that fails them so spectacularly. The plotting goes back and forth between misadventure after another across a dark, gloomy Los Angeles – and all too quickly it gives the feeling that all of Hannah’s efforts will be fruitless, and that this is a tunnel with little light at the end. While it would cheap and far too easy to label the movie as “too depressing”, I found it difficult to truly latch on to and feel committed to material that lives so much in the darkness, even if it is indeed important, told with honesty, and performed so well. Despite how much you want everyone to succeed, the lack of much hope, answers and bursts of creativity that can come from examining such creative, special people leaves a big hole where so much potential is missing.
For a movie taking place in the music business, the low-key, techno soundscapes of Hugo Nicholson add an ethereal air to the sequences where music becomes the form of expression Hannah and Theo can pour themselves into. In fact, music can play such a huge role in the movie that it feels a shame there’s no room to focus on it more. When Hannah tries to function on her own without worrying about Theo it’s when she’s in the studio of Lee, with Daddario getting some time to play the bubble-gum pop princess uninterested in whatever Hannah is dealing with. Her character is so clearly the corporate, cashed-in phony the movie wants to have us root against, and I can’t help feeling like there are some easy outs taken with her character. Daddario does a great job with the character and her bright blue hair, but there’s far too little of her to make an impact. It’s as if she’s there as someone to villainize, and yet the time isn’t taken to let that feel fleshed out.
Again, handling a movie with this sort of incredibly heavy subject matter is a tricky tightrope to walk. O’Brien achieved the goal of shedding a light on mental illness and the tolls it can take, doing so with no frills or schmaltz that can dull the point. But at the same time, it can lack an emotional resonance and structure that feels like this is a journey you can be absorbed into with characters you can care for on a deeper level. After a brief familiarity period, the characters are plunged into mental and emotional turmoil, and that’s where audiences will be tested. The passion and good intentions are there, and that along with superb work from Pegg and Temple are just enough to make the importance shine through, and while it’s not for everyone, it boasts more than a few things everyone should pay attention to.