Whether it’s his recurring role as the comic relief in the Mission: Impossible series or being the co-writer and star of the vaunted Cornetto trilogy, Simon Pegg has made his name by being a very, very funny man. So when he has occasionally dabbles in pseudo-serious fare (2014’s Hector and the Search for Happiness, for example), it may come as a bit of a surprise—while also serving as a reminder that Pegg has never really had the chance to demonstrate his full range as an actor.
WIth Lost Transmissions he does, and then some, and it may well prevent you from ever seeing him in the same light again. The heart-breaking and torturous full-length debut from writer and director Katharine O’Brien examines one man’s struggle with mental illness and his relationship with the only person who deigns to care for him (a role O’Brien knows all to well—Lost Transmissions is loosely based on her own experiences). Pegg is Theo, a paranoid schizophrenic struggling to earn a living as a small-time music producer in Los Angeles. He can’t seem to string two good days together—partly because he refuses to take his prescribed medication—and sets out on what becomes a terrifying downward spiral.
Hannah (Juno Temple) is a fresh-faced singer-songwriter with talent to spare (her airy sound is reminiscent of Julee Cruise) who knows nothing yet about Theo’s illness when they meet. He introduces her to a big-time label early-on, and after instantly becoming a favorite of the label’s pop icon Dana Lee (a wasted Alexandra Daddario), Hannah earns a songwriting gig. And then the bottom falls out, as she learns the maddening and heartbreaking truth about her mentor.
The more she struggles to get him to stay on his medications and then get him placed in a facility, the more frustrated and hopeless she becomes—not only at the American healthcare system but also her own situation. If she can just get him to return home to London, she discovers, there’s a long-term bed waiting for him and all the attention he needs. He’s having none of it, though, at first denying there’s even an issue and then becoming belligerent, all the while claiming to hear voices in radio static and rambling about the Princess of Time. It doesn’t take long for Hannah to reach the end of her rope.
Temple, so far largely relegated to unmemorable roles (Thistletwit in the Maleficent films) finally gets her chance to take center stage, and she absolutely kills it. Offering up a delicately balanced combo of bewilderment and desperation, she asserts herself here as a top-tier actress—which is no mean feat, playing opposite Pegg in the role of his life. It’s a clear testament to his talents that he slides into the role with what appears to be the utmost ease. The performance, in fact, would easily be worthy of award attention, if the film were anything close to a mainstream studio feature.
O’Brien proves she has plenty of Indie cred, however, and her ability to draw on her own life gives the film a sense of realism that elevates the film from the outset; there’s a distinct cinéma vérité feel at play here, thrusting the audience head-first into the madness. And having Pegg and Temple as the most unconventional of tour guides, makes Lost Transmissions well worth finding.