Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Film Movement releases the film on various virtual and digital platforms, plus virtual cinema options on Friday, February 12.
Noah Hutton’s feature debut takes place in a “parallel present,” but nothing about clever sci-fi dramedy “Lapsis” feels that removed from the contemporary world. Smartly weaving together questions of corporate greed, a cheeky bitcoin stand-in, and social justice issues that don’t feel shunted in just to be “timely,” “Lapsis” is as much about the tightly constructed world Hutton has created as the one his audience lives within.
Schlubby leading man Ray (Dean Imperial) — a supporting character accuses him of having a “70s mobster vibe,” and that’s not far off — serves as our window into the world of “Lapsis.” A regular Joe adorned in aviator glasses and polyester shirts, Ray works a blue collar job in Queens, and knows world is starting to move past him, but his resistance to change has kept him stagnant until personal issues force him to embrace a technological revolution. A new encryption technology called quantum has rocked the stock market, and it’s starting to have many other applications.
For a low-key Luddite like Ray, the allure of quantum is initially small-scale: He can’t access an updated city calendar on his “standard” computer; it’s all quantum. Soon, however, the stakes are raised. His kid brother Jamie (Babe Howard) has “omnia,” a chronic fatigue disorder that some scoff at (as often happens to people who suffer from CF-related issues) while others attempt to use as a way to sell snake oil cures. In need of money to get Jamie world-class treatment, a slightly baffled Ray signs on to be a “cabler.”
Hutton’s world-building takes flight once Ray adopts a new career that forces physical labor on a suffering population of independent contractors with zero benefits. Quantum technology may be advanced enough to forever alter the economic landscape of the world — a number of meticulous informational videos attempt to explain how it works to both Ray and the audience — but it doesn’t literally work without cables to connect the so-called quantum boxes, and it needs people to do that. The eventual presence of automatic cabling carts, a natty bit of practical prop work, serve to highlight the desperation of the people trying to beat them on their “routes” while also hinting at other, darker forces at play.
Set up with a “medallion” (a tough-to-snag membership anyone familiar with the taxi industry will immediately recognize), Ray sets out on his first weekend cabling in a sprawling national park, now owned by one of the many cabling companies that dominate the industry. A cutesy app encourages cablers to “challenge your status quo!” and doesn’t let them rest when they want; a company store sells them goods at a marked-up price, and it’s hard to shake the sense that drone-operated deliveries of extra cable aren’t entirely above board.
The film’s first half is exceptionally well-paced, plunging both Ray and Hutton’s audience into a new world, while meting out hints that something much bigger is going on just underneath the surface. Although the second half of “Lapsis” struggles to keep up that momentum, Hutton continually finds new corners to explore and new wrinkles to lay out. As Ray huffs and puffs his way through his first weekend — punctuated by attempts to check in on Jamie, the appearance of an alluring fellow cabler (a well-cast Madeline Wise), and the sense that there’s something very wrong with his mysteriously procured medallion — the surprises keep coming.
Hutton might not entirely stick the landing, but the pleasures of “Lapsis” extend beyond tidy conclusions and easy answers. Imperial, Wise, and the rest of a game cast never wink at what’s happening around them, finding humor and revelations in equal measure. The world of “Lapsis” might not be far off from the one we live in, but its meticulous construction can’t help but please anyone looking for answers, even tough ones.
“Lapsis” was set to premiere in the Narrative Feature Competition section of the 2020 SXSW Film Festival.