Theo (Simon Pegg) is a celebrated record producer and charismatic to the hilt, both of which disguise a more secretive existence as a person with schizophrenia often living life on the fringes of a mind that has him convinced of life between the radio waves and space frequencies that seemingly dominate his consciousness whenever he's, once again, set aside his medications because they interrupt the creative process.
However, we're not initially privy to any particular concerns with Theo as he sits alongside an enchanted Hannah (Juno Temple), a young woman with a beautiful voice and musical dreams who is immediately taken by the producer's larger than life personality. It is our first clue regarding the story about to unfold that when the two sit down to play a song that one suggests a Daniel Johnston tune while the other instantly knows that very tune.
Daniel Johnston, for those not in the know, was a former folk/lo-fi musician who passed away in September 2019 with a cult following that celebrated his simplistic, almost child-like songs that celebrated love and life while also illuminating his own life with mental illness.
Hannah, unsurprisingly, has her own issues as evidenced by the scars on her arms and the anti-depressants she's been on since the age of 22. Theo tries, rather bluntly, to convince her that they're inhibiting her creativity but she just as bluntly recognizes that they're likely saving her life.
Still, the two click. It's a platonic click, the kind of click borne out of that instant connection that two creatives experience when they meet a musical soul-mate or something along those lines. It's also the kind of click that two people with mental illness experience when their illnesses, despite somewhat endangering each other also complement one another.
Theo takes Hannah under his wing and in no time at all arranges both a recording contract and work alongside Alexandra Daddario's Dana Lee, a top performer whose presence here is essentially meant to represent the myriad of friends who just never have the time nor energy to intervene on Theo's behalf once he goes off his medications and begins to take a freefall into dangerous behaviors, potential homelessness, and legal encounters.
Lost Transmissions is the feature film debut of writer/director Katharine O'Brien. It's a film based on her own life experiences supporting someone with schizophrenia, an intimate connection to the story that is evident, at times to the film's detriment, in the way that the film practically idolizes Hannah's fierce dedication, somewhat inexplicably, to being present for Theo even if it means risking her own welfare. It's clear fairly early on that Hannah is in over her head, a fragile young woman who, nonetheless, seems to also find meaning for herself in living for something beyond herself. There's an unhealthy dynamic here, but it's a realistic one and one based upon the harsh reality that acquiring mental health services in the U.S. is nearly impossible even, quite frequently, for the wealthy and famous.
There are certain films that are better because of their flaws. This is the case with Lost Transmissions, though it does possess some negative, potentially dangerous messaging that will instantly ring as false for anyone who has either experienced mental illness or worked within the mental health system. Fortunately, these modest quibbles are relatively brief and the overwhelmingly positive impact of O'Brien's story is left firmly intact.
There's no doubt that Hollywood has tackled this kind of story before, though it's usually glossier and pretty and far more filled do-gooders doing good things. Lost Transmissions, on the other hand, brings to mind Jon Cryer's criminally underrated 1998 film Went to Coney Island on a Mission From God...Be Back By 5, a film that is easily one of best I've seen in tackling living with mental illness, the people around those living with mental illness, and the grossly inadequate mental health system.
Lost Transmissions is the perfect film for Simon Pegg to both flex his acting muscles and live into his celebrated reputation as one of Hollywood's true sci-fi geeks. While there really isn't an ounce of fun to be found here, Pegg brings Theo's mind to life rather beautifully as if he instinctively understands how one's mind could perceive life between radio waves and frequencies and amidst far off galaxies. While O'Brien's script is strong, the simple truth is that Pegg transcends it with a performance that should easily rate among his best.
Juno Temple's turn as Hannah is almost waif-like, not her body but her entire being. It's as if she's a leaf amidst the wind being blown wherever the universe takes her. The fact that she so completely immerses herself in Theo's journey is practically a miracle unto itself but you can see in her eyes that while her mental illness is different she understands his and feels both capable of and responsible for doing something about it. It's admirable, though it's hard not to wish that O'Brien's script had more adequately addressed some degree of self-care along the journey. Additionally, Lost Transmissions wraps up a little too tidily especially for a film that had been so brimming with realism up until the film's final moments.
After a warm reception upon its world premiere at Tribeca Film Festival and a successful festival run, Lost Transmissions has been picked up by indie distributor Gravitas Ventures for a limited theatrical run kicking off March 13th with a VOD/digital release to follow.
Hugo Nicolson's original music for the film captures all the ups and downs of Theo's journey, while Arnau Valls Colomer's lensing is mostly hand-held and so intimate that you can't help but feel unnerved with every new encounter between Theo and Hannah. Tom Castronovo's production design is top notch throughout, though the real master stroke here is that O'Brien has taken great pains to capture the absolute grittiness of Theo's freefall with stark Skid Row footage and a cinematic embrace of those caught amidst homelessness and overwhelmed, easily fooled, and simply inadequate mental health supports.
Lost Transmissions is the kind of gritty, naturalistic type of film that seldom gets made anymore and the fact it did is most likely owing to the involvement of Pegg, Temple, and Daddario. Kudos to them for bringing this story to life and kudos to Katharine O'Brien on a fine, engaging, and powerfully brought to life feature film debut.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic