Lost Transmissions is a low-key odyssey that explores the messy reality of caring for someone with a mental illness. Hannah (Juno Temple) is a fledging singer taken under the wing of Theo (Simon Pegg), a charismatic music producer she meets through mutual friends. In their first meeting, he asks her about the scars on her body, and she reveals that she’s on medication for depression after driving into a tree. Theo suggests she go off the prescription to access her creativity and passion, proclaiming he doesn’t believe in pharmaceuticals for mental health. Hannah asserts that she’s keeping herself safe by taking them. Taken by her talent, Theo decides to help her launch a music career; charmed by his wild, charismatic energy, Hannah finds the lively friend and mentor she’s been looking for. After a few magical months of recording an album and connecting Hannah with a major record label, Theo begins acting odd. He descends into a full psychotic break. Hannah gets an education in how poorly her friends deal with mental illness when they finally get around to revealing the truth to her after he’s gone off his meds.
Based on a true story, Lost Transmissions is aptly named. Shot mostly hand-held, it’s a no-frills immersion into the complicated world of mental health. A Hollywood version of this story would have its characters diligently researching how to help a friend through a psychotic break, having long-educated discussions on how to safely help their friend who’s gone off his meds, and knowing exactly how to deal with someone who has paranoid schizophrenia after in-depth Google searches, support meetings, and listening to enlightening podcasts about mental illness. Lost Transmissions chooses instead to show what actually happens most of the time. No one does any research, everyone thinks they know how to handle it without any real education on mental illness, and frankly, everyone is just too busy with their own lives to deal with it. Often the person most invested in care has her own mental health struggles, which can be either helpful, disastrous, or both. It also neither deifies or villanizes Theo. He’s brilliant, caring, and kind, and also knows exactly what to say to not get himself committed, even when he’s having a total breakdown that leaves his friends to desperately chase him around LA some more. This happens in the real world all the time, and is rarely put on film in such a balanced way.
Lost Transmissions is bold in its avoidance of polishing itself up to be more entertaining. Though it’s painful and infuriating to watch how poorly people deal with Theo, it’s also accurate. For instance, Theo’s friends send him home with Hannah to live alone with her, a woman half his age, while he’s off his meds, making him violent and unpredictable (they actually forget there’s a restraining order against Theo), because no one else wants to deal with him. There’s another scene where Theo is upset about going to the psychiatric hospital and pins the arms of his friend driving him, and nearly crashes the car, despite a pregnant woman in the back seat with him. All the driver does is shame Theo, as if he’s just being an unreasonable, mean child who can control himself but refuses to. That few people know how to safely deal with a friend having a psychotic break and never do any research about it is common, and it’s great that someone made a movie about it.
Simon Pegg and Juno Temple are both excellent as two oddly-matched friends battling mental health issues. Pegg has earned himself a place of royalty in sci-fi franchise and genre franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek, the super nerd whose wildest dreams came true (not to mention being Tom Cruise’s sidekick in Mission Impossible films). While his deep geeky knowledge has contributed to beloved franchise films being better, it’s great to see him step into a meaty, serious role where his talent as an actor gives Theo real substance. It’s also interesting to see him play a man who believes he’s lost in a sci-fi plot, because Pegg’s career is based on his passion for sci-fi culture. It brings complexity to the character that another actor likely couldn’t get to. Juno Temple also gives it her all as Hannah in a bold, passionate performance.
The film does get wobbly towards the end, and veers into neatly tied, unrealistic conclusions. Theo’s choices in London, to suddenly choose positive self-care out of nowhere by himself, is confusing and out of sync. There is also a scene where Hannah guilts a woman for not having adequate compassion for a much older, violent man who’s stalking her. “He is suffering and you can help him,” she weeps, making the other woman feel like a jerk for having the nerve to put her personal safety above a person who won’t take responsibility for his serious mental health issues. That this dangerous, ill-advised strategy seems to magically be the only thing that works, impresses the idea that young women should just love the dangerous men who harass them more.
This film could have also used a little more work. Often the dialogue is wooden and unrealistic; there are very few conversations that feel like anything people would actually say. This is especially disorienting with the film’s naturalistic, hand-held cinematography. A great editor could have vastly improved the tightness of the movie.
However, Lost Transmissions still has a lot of refreshing things to say about the realistic state of mental health issues. It’s assertion that not doing anything to educate oneself about a loved one’s suffering, although common, can cause more harm than good. It can be an uncomfortable watch, mainly because most people are guilty of telling a mentally ill person the completely wrong thing. And while things are vastly better than they were even twenty years ago, a lot of important information is still getting lost. (Ivy Lofberg)
The Tribeca Film Festival runs April 24 to May 5. Visit the official website for more details.