There’s no business like “know” business. With the cameras always on, we know exactly when to laugh and smile, while maintaining a daily, personal brand suitable for social media. Director Zachary Wigon examines a new form of loneliness in his poignant feature debut, The Heart Machine.
Based on a 2012 short by Wigon, The Heart Machine takes place in New York City and features a couple twenty-somethings, an online couple, living a couple miles apart. In fact, the adorable Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) lives in Berlin, or at least that what she’s led Skype lover, Cody (John Gallagher, Jr.), to believe. Director Wigon establishes a theme of psychological slumber early on, with Cody attached to his phone and disengaged from another physical form of hazy, social hookups: a New York City nightclub. Missing his auburn-haired sweetheart, Cody establishes his connection, literally and figuratively, as Virginia stares in his admiring eyes and says, “You’re my body part.” It’s a mutual mindf**k that both characters embrace.
While Cody appears to portray himself honestly, albeit losing his sense of self (slowly but surely), he discovers that beyond all the smiles and Skype sex, sweet ol’ Virginia may not actually live in Berlin. In fact, she could be living down the street. An awkward game of online “Know How” (copyright Young MC) ensues, while both parties neither touch one another or touch on an understanding of self-worth. They are two machines destined to clash, but can they function as one?
Both Sheil and Gallagher, Jr. strike a powerful chord in The Heart Machine with their subtle yet fascinating performances. It seems that Sheil, a product of the Mumblecore movement (and the hardest working woman of indie film), may have reached the next level as the questionable Virginia. She brings a tender softness to her character, but contrasts that with a hardened exterior, sometimes frightening, when John inches closer and closer to the truth. And that’s a compliment to the writing (also by Wigon). People of all ages will chuckle when Virginia leaves a conversation due to perceived fat jokes after Cody challenges her German.
Although I’m familiar with the filmography of Sheil, I didn’t immediately recognize Gallagher, Jr. as Mason from Destin Daniel Cretton’s outstanding 2013 film, Short Term 12. Like Sheil, he also brings a softer side to his character. Cody’s gentle demeanor can work wonders for an online, six-month relationship, but not necessarily in a six-month relationship of close proximity. But that’s where The Heart Machine excels — by raising questions about online etiquette and the realities of daily life. One of Cody’s female friends, Jessica (Louisa Krause), reminds him that he’s “a fucking pussy,” which ultimately leads to some rough outdoor sex. Director Wigon does an outstanding job of slowly dissecting the paranoia of a man losing his self-identity, as Cody roams about New York City looking for clues and begins awkward conversations with bro-talk (“Hey…man”). His first encounters with locals become increasingly creepy rather than friendly. The Mojo has been lost…and it shows. But Virginia doesn’t know that.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the stunning cinematography of Rob Leitzell, who shot the “Kids”and “Time to Pretend” music videos for MGMT. It’s always nice to see a small-budget film come together, but the visuals of The Heart Machine layer each scene with an incredible warmth that both lead characters so desperately seek.
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