Cheltenham International Film Festival 2020: Lost Transmissions Review

Around this time last year, the first Cheltenham International Film Festival took place. With the COVID-19 Pandemic ongoing, the festival is not taking place physically in Cheltenham. That does not mean though that the festival is cancelled as it has now become an online festival, with all the films programmed for the festival being available to stream. Whilst I didn’t give full reviews to the films I saw at the festival last year, those being Birds of Passage and Werewolf, I am going to review all the films I stream from this year’s festival, starting with the festival opener, Lost Transmissions.

The film focuses on Hannah Lloyd, a songwriter who becomes friends and works with record producer Theo Ross to get her music out into the world, leading to her becoming a songwriter for pop star Dana Lee. However, whilst Hannah is working with Theo it becomes clear that Theo has not been taking his medication for schizophrenia with the film focusing on the efforts of Hannah and Theo’s friends to get him the care he needs. Whilst the music elements of the film are interesting and there are some good ideas in the film about the nature of music, it is with the mental health angle that the power of the film really shines through. The events that we see with Theo show how broken the system in America is in treating people with mental illnesses, to the point where Theo’s family try and get him back to the UK so he can go into NHS hospitals. We see the loopholes that Theo is able to jump through so that he can get out of psychiatric hospitals and how the system is based more around getting people in and out rather than offering effective treatment. I gets to the point where a doctor actually understanding Theo’s mental state and knowing that he is a danger to himself and everyone around him is treated as a godsend because of how broken the system is. We even see the reaction of the police when Theo acts more violent around them, with the police taking out their guns and threatening to kill Theo and it is only because Hannah was with him and had the paperwork that proved Theo had schizophrenia that he was able to survive. With everything we know about the American police, there was a real possibility that Theo was going to be killed by them. These elements all show how ill equipped the American healthcare system is to deal with mental illnesses and the danger that this puts people in.

The performances meanwhile add to the power of the film, with Simon Pegg as Theo in particular giving one of his best performances. In the early parts of the film Pegg is able to show off  his charming side and his passion for music shines through brilliantly. As the film goes on and we see what Theo is like without his medication, Pegg gives a much darker performance. When Theo goes into one of his breaks Pegg’s full body language changes and this change, combined with a darker tone in his voice does show how scary it can be to be around someone with schizophrenia in a worst case scenario. Everything Pegg does in these scenes is scary but it all feels real and this sense of realism in Pegg’s performance serves to make it all the more powerful and you increasingly fear for Theo and what he could end up doing to himself and others whilst not on his medication. Juno Temple as Hannah also gives a strong performance. The compassion she has for Theo is palpable throughout the film and her anger over how poor the health care system is and how easily Theo is able to exploit the holes in the system comes across brilliantly. There is also an undercurrent of darkness in Temple’s performance as it’s made clear early on that she is taking anti-depressants and, with a scene showing her not taking them, there is a risk that Hannah can become a danger to herself. I don’t think the film covers this element of the film as well as it covers Theo’s schizophrenia but Temple is able to bring these elements across well. There are also good performances in smaller roles from Jamie Harris, Bria Vinaite and Rebecca Hazelwood, whilst Tao Okamoto gives an excellent performance near the end of the film, although I don’t want to spoil how this ends up. Alexandro Daddario as Dana Lee meanwhile is a bit of a weird point for me. Daddario gives a good performance, having a more selfish, arrogant air to her that works well in contrast to Temple’s performance, but her performance is more of an extended cameo and I don’t think the film goes into enough detail with her character to make the contrasts pop out as well as it could.

The technical elements of the film are also well handled. Director Katharine O’Brien and DP Arnau Valls Colomer use a lot of long takes in the film which, at their best, do a great job at showing the danger that Theo is putting himself and build up the fear that you have that Theo will harm himself or those around him and these long takes, in conjunction with Pegg’s performance, effectively let you see how quickly Theo’s mental state can break when he’s not on his medication. The music by Hugo Nicolson is great, having this good electronic feel that helps to build the atmosphere and adds to the bittersweet nature of the film, as well as establishing Theo’s skill as a record producer so you understand on a auditory level when Theo is having a break. This works well with the sound design to let you understand how Theo’s mind is working when he’s on a break. One of the main elements that signals when Theo is on a break is his fiddling with radios and sound equipment to find signals underneath them and the sound design emphasising static in these scenes lets the audience understand this and, again, shows the damage to Theo on an auditory level.

Overall, Lost Transmissions is a powerful film, anchored by excellent central performances from Simon Pegg and Juno Temple. Whilst there are some stumbles with the way some characters are depicted the film does a great job at showing how bad the effects of schizophrenia can be and how the American health system is ill equipped to handle such cases and the damage that this can and will do to people both now and in the future.

My Rating: 4/5


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