Having now seen six of the total eight films in SXSW’s narrative competition section, I must admit I’m rather underwhelmed by the offerings. Maybe it’s all the Brooklyn settings, or the abundance of 20 and 30-something malaise. Hasn’t this become stale by now? And this is coming from someone in the key demo to appreciate 20 and 30-something malaise.
However, one performance has stuck with me. Kate Lyn Sheil ("Sun Don't Shine"), a ubiquitous face in the indie scene if not yet a well-known name like, say, Greta Gerwig or Joe Swanberg, is undeniably a standout in Zachary Wigon’s tale of long-distance relationship woes and paranoia, “The Heart Machine.” Sheil stands out not because she “kills” the performance -- it’s not a big, showy turn -- but rather because she underplays it. It’s a difficult, somewhat inscrutable role -- and, alas, female characters who make murky choices typically throw viewers for a loop -- but as I watched her I felt like I knew that person she was playing. This isn’t easy to do.
“The Heart Machine” isn’t literally about a long-distance relationship. Cody ("Newsroom"'s John Gallagher Jr, playing off-type) has made a strong online connection with Virginia (Sheil), who has told him she’s studying abroad for six months in Berlin. But Cody is having doubts. Things don’t add up -- the sirens he hears in her background over Skype aren’t the instantly recognizable drone of European ambulances, and the plug outlets in her apartment are suspiciously square and three-prong. Is Virginia lying to him about where she lives? And, if so, why? She’s clearly as into him as he is into her.
Cody becomes unhealthily obsessed with discovering Virginia’s whereabouts, and he turns into a downright creep in the process. As Cody devolves, scouring the East Vilage for hints and traces of his allusive girlfriend, and as Virginia meanwhile fights her own demons, we realize these two are indeed suffering from being “long-distance.” The internet can bring people together but also create an unsettling amount of space between them. This isn’t a new idea, but it’s effectively communicated in “The Heart Machine.”
The film, well directed by first-time feature helmer Wigon, does make the occasional misstep. There’s an implausible scene where Cody stalks a would-be Facebook friend of Virginia’s, and near the film’s end Virginia gives an on-the-nose explanation of her behavior, which isn’t needed.
But good characters anchor a film, even when it’s plotting or dialogue are momentarily derailed. In Sheil’s strong performance and her subtly written role created by Wigon, we feel the substantial amount of observant nuance -- and heart -- in “The Heart Machine.”