SXSW Review: Love And Lies Drive THE HEART MACHINE

Watching these young lovers wreck their long distance relationship makes for an uncomfortable good time at the movies.

Out of all the things that The Heart Machine does right, the one I appreciated the most was the decision to begin the film in media res. We open with Cody (Short Term 12's John Gallagher Jr.) chatting on Skype with the long distance girlfriend Virginia (The Sacrament's Kate Lyn Shiel) he hasn't met in person just yet. They met online at an inopportune time for her; Virgina's supposed to be studying abroad in Berlin. Cody knows that this is a lie.

Almost immediately we're spared any movie-style twists that might get in the way of the real meat of writer-director Zachary Wigon's debut feature. This is the story of two people looking for the same thing and having completely different, conflicting ideas about how to get there. They're making the kinds of emotional mistakes we make on the road to finding love, at the expense of each other's trust, in a way that's so brutally honest that the film is almost uncomfortable.

Cody's quest to reveal Virginia's real location, the pulse of The Heart Machine, is suspenseful and troubling. He talks like a classic "nice guy" (the Skype conversations between Cody and Virginia are annoyingly, realistically banal), but his actions reveal an obsessive who internalizes his rage to play the good guy in any situation. Conversely, that behavior makes him look like a jerk, really, as there are more than a few times that massive issues would be resolved if he would just say what was on his mind.

It's worth noting that Virginia, for all of her more blatant dishonesty, come across the more sympathetic of the two. She struggles with sex addiction and has compartmentalized Cody to a section of her life where she's comfortable dealing with love and romance. She can see that there will come a day when she'll have to deal with Cody in a more concrete way, but until then, he's like her special little secret.

Cody, of course, has no idea that this is the case, and watching the two of them deal with each other by non-communication is maddening. We're used to characters in movies spilling their guts out in some grand statement of love and honesty. Wigon is a very "show don't tell" director, so it's up to Gallagher and Shiel to make the audience understand how much of what they're doing to each other comes from a good place when it all seems so painfully wrong.

Wigon gets a lot of modern sex addiction right. Instead of lurid 70's style nightclub action ala Shame, Virginia uses Craigslist and apps like Blendr to stage random hook-ups like it's something that has to be done. Like smoking a cigarette, we have to assume it affords her some pleasure, but it also looks like kind of a chore. It's an appreciated extra touch of authenticity in a film that already felt emotionally authentic.

There's nothing flashy about The Heart Machine, but there's some difficult truth in it about the way we sometimes deal with our partners. Beyond all of that relationship stickiness, it works pretty well as a suspense thriller. Cody gets more unhinged the closer he gets to the truth, and Virginia gives off the vibe of someone who could up and disappear at any second if she wanted. It's tense watching the two of them circle around each other, both physically and emotionally, without them knowing it. The Heart Machine frustrated me in the best possible way.

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