52 Films by Women Vol 5. 27. Lost Transmissions (Director: Katharine O’Brien)

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Pictured: Aspiring songwriter Hannah (Juno Temple) and seasoned music producer Theo (Simon Pegg) at the piano in the mental illness drama 'Lost Transmissions', written and directed by Katharine O'Brien. Still courtesy of Gravitas Ventures/Royal Road Entertainment/Underlying Tension

Contains spoilers


When we first meet Theo (Simon Pegg) at the start of the Los Angeles-set drama, Lost Transmissions, he seems like just another drunken show-off who latches onto a piano at a party. There he is, tinkling the blackened ivories, composing ditties about the assembled company. Only, he is no Noël Coward. The esteemed Mr C would not describe Theo’s friend Angus (Jamie Harris) as ‘tough as old boots with the laces undone’. Nor would he rhyme Hannah (Juno Temple) with ‘bananas.’ ‘Is she a tragedy or a mystery?’ he asks aloud, before luring the poor guest to the piano herself and inviting her to sing. She responds with a fragile rendition of Daniel Johnston’s ‘True love will find you in the end’, which Theo spoils by joining in. He is a British expatriate music producer with problems. The film follows Hannah, who has her own self-esteem issues, as she is drawn in to solve them.

Writer-director Katharine O’Brien based her film on a true story. Her intention is to show how poorly-equipped the United States is in dealing with mental illness. Unless you ‘self-refer’, that is, pay up front, you are discharged after three days and left to make a nuisance of yourself. The best-case scenario is to convince medical professionals that you are a threat to others. Then you can be sectioned as a ‘5250’ and get proper treatment.

Hannah works as a receptionist answering the phone (‘how may I direct your call’) and tipping papers off her desk just to see how they land; cue a surprised look from a colleague. She is surprised to get a call from Theo, who rings her at work ‘because I know you’d answer’. She pops round to his studio and is wowed by his instruments – one keyboard is from a Phil Spector job-lot, another was acquired from Chaka Khan. Before she knows it, Hannah is kneeling on a piano stool and performing something from a song she wrote as a teenager. Theo is suitably impressed and invites her to his studio. Wearing a set of huge earphones, Hannah fools around a bit, imagining herself as a pilot speaking to the control tower. When she riffs on the word orbit, Theo encourages her to turn it into the first line of a song, ‘I’m drifting out of orbit’. He thinks she is holding back emotionally and encourages her to sing to him, switching off the light to help with her vulnerability. She is impressed with the result and they seal the deal with Chinese food, over which she confesses that she has been on anti-depressants since the age of 22 and been in a crash (referring to scars on her arms). ‘Don’t you wish you stopped taking them?’ he asks.

Before Hannah knows it, her songs end up in the hands of a record label and she is paired with Dana Lee (Alexandra Daddario) a pink-fingernailed pop sensation. ‘These aren’t nails – they’re claws.’ Dana Lee is full on, giving Hannah the kind of hug that would make Hannah reach for her selfie stick. ‘I love her. Can I keep her?’ Dana implores. Dana also recognises that Hannah is damaged, which makes her ideal. On the way out, Hannah reflects that she has not seen Theo for a while. She collects him as he has car trouble, specifically, he cannot remember where he parked it. That is when the problems emerge, specifically Theo playing with her car stereo and describing the transmissions that can be heard just under the static between radio stations. OK, everybody needs a hobby. However, Theo cannot open the door to his apartment; he has been evicted.

Hannah brings him to Rachel (Rebecca Hazlewood), their mutual friend. (Incidentally, I tried to figure out how Hannah ended up at the party, that is, who invited her, but came up blank.) Rachel and Hannah discuss Theo while he sits in the car playing with a radio knob. Innuendo is inevitable. Rachel calls Theo’s sister, but Theo will not speak to her. He will not even get in a car with Hannah because of her yellow sweater.

An intervention follows during which Angus and friends all give their reasons why they cannot deal with Theo. ‘My girlfriend’s just moved in.’ ‘We’re going away.’ ‘I’m just a tenant.’ ‘What about Theo’s dad, the vicar?’ ‘I thought he was a wine merchant.’ ‘He turned to God to save his liver’. This exchange provokes the only laugh. Unfortunately, Theo refuses to fly back to London. In the yard, Theo apologises to Hannah, not for the sweater remark but for being too much trouble. ‘I scare people,’ he confesses. ‘You don’t scare me,’ responds Hannah, wishfully, curling up to him.

Bringing Theo home, Hannah invites him to share her bed. Showing surprising restraint, Theo prefers the couch.  After all, he is almost twice her age. She encourages him to take a Percocet. He refuses. Then he tells her that he needs to be back at the studio. (‘I need the money.’) ‘I’ll give you a ride if you take the pill,’ Hannah demands. Theo refuses then accepts and makes a great show of swallowing the pill without doing so. After she leaves the house, he presses the pill into a plant pot.

Hannah is soon made to realise that she should not have indulged him. Theo is rude to a singer (‘can you sing like a squeaky duck?’) He messes up the mix by introducing an alarm sound and calls the band derivative. ‘Why are you working with us?’ ‘Because I need the money.’ ‘You’re an asshole.’ ‘He’s an artist,’ protests Hannah. Rudy (Andres Faucher), Theo’s landlord, turns up. ‘You’re not supposed to be here. How are you paying for things? You still have my card?’ As Rudy demands the company credit card, Theo does the ‘look over there’ distraction technique seen in many children’s cartoons – the role is perfectly suited to Pegg’s man-child comfort zone. He leaves with his career in tatters. But his dignity? No - that is gone too.

Fortunately, Hannah receives a call. Angus and others have found a facility for him. However, Theo is not a great passenger, shaking the driver’s seat from behind and complaining that the woman next to him is not pregnant but has a bomb up her shirt. Angus stops the car and Hannah calms her down.

At her apartment, Hannah looks at her own vial of pills. Instead of taking one, she puts the pills under the sink, a gesture that says, ‘I’m not going to take them anymore. Well – maybe.’

Hannah visits Theo at the facility. Theo is in a doorway and rushes to embrace her. This is a woman whom he describes as ‘chubby chops’ and greets with the cry, ‘oy, oy, saveloy’. (I think Pegg wrote some of his own dialogue.) Theo refuses to go back to London. ‘What about my wife?’ he asks. Hannah is confused. ‘The Princess of Time,’ he explains. ‘We’re not married yet, but we will be.’ Theo, we discover, is obsessed with stopping time and with the help of his Princess can do so, in order to prevent all the bad stuff from happening in the world. It would have been easier for Theo to admit that he is not interested in Hannah, but there you go.

As she leaves, the receptionist asks whether she is taking Theo with her. ‘We can only keep him for three days under a 5150,’ she explains. Hannah asks for a second opinion. A doctor interviews Theo, but he lies through his molars. Hannah bursts in. ‘He’s lying. He’s paranoid. He thinks people are trying to kill him.’ Hannah’s plea makes no difference.

On the drive back, Theo tries to lighten the mood with a game of ‘I spy’. ‘I spy with my little eye something big and fluffy.’ ‘A cloud,’ Hannah replies stiffly. ‘That’s it.’ Next, he spies a rock. ‘The moon?’ Yes. Hannah is invited to suggest a cryptic object. ‘An orgy,’ she suggests, referring to a field of sex maniac flowers being pollinated. Wow, good eyesight. Theo suggests another mystery object he can see – waves.

At a rest stop, Hannah calls Rachel, agreeing that Theo must seek treatment in England. Unfortunately, he makes a run for it amongst the electricity pylons, channelling his inner Tom Cruise (Pegg and Cruise have made four Mission: Impossible films together). Hannah gives chase but then stops as she hears the hum from the pylons. Maybe, Theo had a point.

Working at the studio, Hannah listens to Dana Lee talk about getting high and calling 912, which is the emergency service for intoxicated people. Hannah is inspired to start composing. While Dana Lee performs the completed track, Hannah gets a call. Theo has been seen at a party. (Really? Who saw him?) O’Brien relies on the telephone call to get us to the next story point.

We next see Hannah at night staring at a pool several stories down. The camera follows her as she walks down the stairs past the various guests drinking from red plastic cups. Theo is talking to two young women in the pool who are chilled and into each other. They encourage Theo take a pill. Hannah takes it instead. There then follows the in-pool, tripping out montage sequence, which every film should have, save for Jane Austen adaptations – well, maybe them too.




Pictured: Hannah (Juno Temple) and Theo (Simon Pegg) wind-down in a scene from 'Lost Transmissions', a mental-illness drama set in Los Angeles, written and directed by Katharine O'Brien. Still courtesy of Gravitas Ventures/Royal Road Entertainment/Underlying Tension


Even though they have been in the water, Hannah and Theo are miraculously dry as they lie on a large bed, head to head. Theo gives her the ‘stop thinking, start feeling’ speech. Hannah dances with a freedom we have not seen before, mainly as she comes across as a dour cross between Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. It is not a dance where we share her reckless abandon – O’Brien never at any point makes us feel as Hannah does. Theo is at the deck wearing sunglasses and a furry hat. Why? I do not know. He sees a man wearing glasses who makes him feel threatened. ‘Bring your own goal, your own nebula,’ Theo cries out. He changes tack. ‘OK, I’m not running anymore. Why don’t you take it?’ he asks. referring to his neck wear. Hannah intercedes.

Outside the house, Theo wanders into private property, passing a pool. At this point, I thought he might go full Burt Lancaster from The Swimmer, getting back to Hannah’s place via every neighbourhood outdoor pool. Instead he runs up a hill. He and Hannah and apprehended by the police, O’Brien’s modest budget even extending to a police helicopter. In a scene that we can no longer watch uncritically, the cops pull their guns on Theo. Hannah, with her hands in the air, insists that he is a paranoid schizophrenic and has the papers in her bag to prove it.

At last, Theo is committed under 5250. He is a danger to others. At this point, Hannah learns from Angus that his ex-girlfriend, Wendi (Tao Okamoto) put a restraining order. Why didn’t he mention this before? Being taken to his room, Theo looks back at Hannah. ‘I thought you were different,’ he says, guilt-tripping her.

At the recording studio, hitting the same key over and over, Hannah feels so uninspired. She gets a call about Theo – telephone calls advance the story. Dana is offended. ‘You’re nothing,’ she tells Hannah. ‘My minutes are worth millions.’ Hannah explains that Dana does not inspire loyalty. ‘That’s why you have twenty different songwriters and are seen with session musicians and suits. Good luck with the album,’ she wishes disingenuously.

At the very beginning of the film, even before the party scene, we see Hannah in profile driving. She is in Skid Row, where she finds Theo in a church, eating a meal. He moves away from her. O’Brien tracks across the faces and tents of Skid Row’s impoverished population, making the point that anyone from any background can end up homeless. The sequence is set to a refrain of ‘True love will find you in the end’ sung by Mr Johnston.

At the climax, Hannah hatches a daring plan involving Wendi to convince him to go back to London. But will it work?

Lost Transmissions plays like a more honest version of Silver Linings Playbook. It does not explain mental illness but shows in its penultimate scene how the noise pollution of a Los Angeles traffic jam can grate on the nerves. Its point about the treatment of mental illness is not well served by the drama, which never gives us the sense that Theo can be saved, only managed. O’Brien avoids cliché by Theo and Hannah not having a sexual relationship, but you wonder why Hannah does not call on any of her resources – her family – rather than just Theo’s. Honesty does not equate with believability and those repeated phone calls to advance the plot do the story no favours. We warm to Hannah and Theo but theirs is not a convincing relationship. At one point, Hannah sees a homeless guy who talks about time stopping and the sign not moving. I wondered whether O’Brien took his patter and gave it to Theo. Nevertheless, the film has some integrity, even if it is at times hard to watch.

Reviewed via the Cheltenham International (Online) Film Festival, Monday 8 June 2020 (opening film)

About the author


Independent film critic who just wants to witter on about movies every so often. Very old (by Hollywood standards).

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