If you’ve been unfortunate enough to log onto Twitter dot com, you might’ve come across a certain discourse that unfolds like this: there are people who say that van Gogh wouldn’t have been able to create his masterpieces if he’d been without the mental illness that eventually claimed his life. These people then use a similar defence for why struggles with something like depression or anxiety only benefit a person’s creative process, in the end. The idea is that wading through the deepest recesses of one’s mind produces the best art, right? Happiness doesn’t induce the same beauty that sadness does. The tortured artist is, ultimately, the more thought-provoking one.
This discourse between mental health and creativity finds itself as the centrepiece of director Katharine O’Brien’s film Lost Transmissions. It’s a film that neither glamorises nor sugarcoats the reality of watching someone you care about succumb to their own mind, utilising Simon Pegg’s god-tier acting abilities (reminiscent of his turn as alcoholic Gary King in The World’s End) to expertly intertwine deep sadness and instability with humour and charisma. In the film, an ageing record producer (Pegg) and his musical protégé (Juno Temple) find themselves in an endless battle of medication versus untapped creativity, exposing not only the heartache of being unable to help someone who can only help themselves, but the inadequacies of the mental health care system in America. It’s an undaunted look at the cost of “freeing one’s mind” in the name of art – even if, narratively speaking, the film doesn’t paint all the right strokes.
Theo Ross (Pegg), once a wild and successful musician, now spends his quieter, autumn years as a record producer for the younger generation. At a low-key party amongst mutual friends, he becomes acquainted with Hannah (Temple), a shy, but promising musical spirit with an infectiously candy-coated singing voice and gifted songwriting skills. Theo whisks Hannah away from her doldrums office job and brings her to his studio at his home, tapping into her singing abilities and hooking her up with a gig writing for the pop star Dana Lee (a drug-laced lollipop doubling as a Katy Perry/Charli XCX hybrid played by Alexandra Daddario). While getting closer to one another, Theo learns that Hannah is on antidepressants after she drove herself into a tree some years ago. Theo, though suffering from schizophrenia triggered by a bad trip in his heyday, doesn’t believe in medication. He favours the creativity he accesses while leaving his mind free from medicinal suppression.
But his schizophrenia is malignant, and his outbursts more-so. They transform the typically affable and easygoing Theo into a paranoiac insistent on his self-imposed quest to find the alleged “Princess of Time” – a woman he met while out shopping who has since imposed a restraining order on him. The film follows Hannah as she both questions her own use of medication and attempts to contain her new friend through his vicious cycles – long since his closer friends have all but given up – helping him to get committed and feeling futility over and over again as the system put in place to treat him only seems to want him gone.
Lost Transmissions excels in its brazen, gruelling depiction of mental health struggles and the way it ripples outward to those in its warpath. Theo’s psychotic breaks are ugly, uncomfortable, and genuinely upsetting, as you feel Hannah’s frustration and hurt as this person she cares for so deeply seems unable to be cared for. The movie never ends its uphill battle, the denouement only one step in Theo’s lengthy process towards recovery. The film’s lack of a sweet resolution highlights the fact that battling mental illness is ongoing and endless – medications abates, but doesn’t solve, and thus the film paints a portrait that attempts to hit this message home. Though there is a lack of extra narrative pull – perhaps in the fact that we never get close enough to either Theo or Hannah, only ever skirting the surface of both their full personalities and simultaneously not digging deep enough into the subject material – the film’s exhausting nature is refreshing, and feels honest.
But the film is not anti-medication; on the contrary, it criticises this idea that letting an imbalanced mind roam free is not only more beneficial for artistic purposes, but for the artist themselves. Theo’s true wellbeing is, thus, put second to this mistaken ideal, bolstered by other musicians who see just how “creative” he becomes while off medication and only encourage him. At the same time, there is the looming presence of American mental health care facilities, which are shown to be not only shockingly insufficient but mismanaged; just as easy to leave from as it is to be committed to. Patients in desperate need of help are turned away if they don’t meet quota which are easy to evade, and patients can be removed by friends or even acquaintances who see fit to do so. Doctors seem mostly concerned with getting patients out of their facilities as quickly as possible, as opposed to keeping them until they’re closer to recovery.
Though Hannah and Theo’s relationship is not quite as fleshed out as it could’ve been, their platonic connection is a warm welcome as opposed to the easy romantic route that could’ve been taken. Apart from the fact that films which intertwine romance and mental illness can often be seen as romanticising the illnesses themselves, it’s simply refreshing to have a film surround the valid intimacy of friendship. People don’t need to be in love to find love and longing for one another, and Pegg and Temple are masters at nailing the melancholy, sorrow, and genuine glimmers of joy interwoven in their complicated affections for one another.
Lost Transmissions is not an easy film to sit through – it drags in parts, but it is also just distressing in the way it lays bare a very sensitive and often uncomfortable subject matter, allowing itself to delve into the depths of hopelessness. But it is not a hopeless film, as Hannah’s devotion to Theo never lets up even when she finds herself at the end of her rope. At the same time, it’s not a film about how the love of another person is the only way to be saved, for Theo comes to understand that his journey to self-betterment must be paved only in his own making. Lost Transmissions certainly could have been more, but as is, it is an honest confrontation of perceptions of mental health and the methods currently in place to treat it. It highlights an underrepresented issue in our health care system and will leave you frustrated that more is not being done for the people who need it.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She is passionate about film and writing about film and also talking about film but can’t really decide which she wants to do with her life, but it’s not a big deal (that’s future Brianna’s problem). She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. She met Greg Sestero once and it was weird. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs