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'The Heart Machine' Finds Subtlety In The Perils Of Online Dating

In <em>The Heart Machine</em>, John Gallagher Jr. plays a man who begins to suspect that his long-distance girlfriend actually lives nearby.
In The Heart Machine, John Gallagher Jr. plays a man who begins to suspect that his long-distance girlfriend actually lives nearby.

The Heart Machineis Zachary Wigon's debut feature — a point worth mentioning up top, because the film exhibits the kind of patience, good judgment and restraint that normally requires careful cultivation.

Case in point: When Wigon introduces us to Cody (John Gallagher Jr.) and Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) through a series of Skype conversations, he makes clear that the two are in a long-distance relationship, with Cody living in New York and Virginia in Berlin. But he takes longer to disclose that the two have never actually met, saving that revelation until after Cody begins to suspect that Virginia is lying about where she lives. At that point, the detail delicately adds to the nascent sense of distrust between the two.

That's Wigon's patience, which also exhibits itself in The Heart Machine's predominantly subdued tone. Wigon's camera tends toward slow pans that slowly reveal the details of a new room or situation. Even as his characters, particularly Cody, rise to increasing levels of exasperation, he never rushes. That juxtaposition is central to making The Heart Machine such an unsettling love story.

Cody's unease grows with his doubts about Virginia, which begin when he hears sirens blaring in the background of her apartment, checks them against an online recording of Berlin sirens, and finds that they don't match up. Using Facebook and other means to stalk Virginia and her friends, Cody begins roaming the East Village to search for signs of her true location.

Wigon, though, doesn't leave the question of Virginia's whereabouts open for very long, at least not for the audience. That's good judgment. Shortly after Cody begins his investigation, we see Virginia on a date in New York, a decision that removes the distraction of mystery from the film and allows it to focus more pointedly on questions of modern romance.

When it comes to those headier concerns, Wigon's premise may sound like a millennial offshoot of You've Got Mail, but his interests and approach are starkly different. For one thing, there's no comedy in this romance; that hole is filled instead with an undercurrent of cynicism. As Cody searches for Virginia, few people appear eager to help him discover the truth about her. More seem unnerved by his insistent inquiries, and none come close to the argument you might expect to hear at some point in the film: that if the two are in love, it doesn't matter whether Virginia is in New York or Berlin.

So while The Heart Machine preoccupies itself with Internet dating — Cody and Virginia meet on OkCupid, while Virginia also uses Craigslist and Blendr — it does so to emphasize how these services can aggravate our worst tendencies. How they offer the temptation to hide ourselves behind fabricated identities. Or how they go hand-in-hand with a surfeit of information available about people online, making it easy for us to follow up on paranoid suspicions we may have about our new partners.

In other words, Wigon isn't afraid to put his characters' bad sides on display, whether in the form of Cody's creepiness or Virginia's insecurity. And both Gallagher and Sheil give performances that let those traits rise to the surface without making the characters unsympathetic.

It's important, however, not to exaggerate the social commentary in The Heart Machine; the film doesn't overreach to make grandiose statements about modern culture. Instead, the movie unfolds modestly. It never feels as if it's making an argument against online dating, opting instead to tell a story that springs from that phenomenon. It never pretends that it can speak about more than these two characters' experiences, but nevertheless imbues them with enough recognizable qualities — both cutesy and unnerving — to make them seem all too familiar.

That, finally, is evidence of Wigon's restraint, and also of his confidence in his actors and script, the strength of which allows him to err on the side of understatement. The result is a movie that's neither ostentatious nor superficial. Which is to say, Wigon's self-assurance proves more than justified.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tomas Hachard