“It’s bodies we obsess upon, but the mind’s the prize,” says one of the two central characters early in “The Heart Machine,” settling on the line for a poem she’s composing, the meaning of which isn’t lost on her boyfriend, who is talking to her over Skype. In writer/director Zach Wigon’s feature debut, the more you get to know about the couple, who we eventually learn are named Virginia (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Cody (John Gallagher Jr.), the less they seem to know about each other since the latter is based in Bushwick and the former is thought to be in Berlin, though certain clues suggest otherwise to Cody.
At first, “The Heart Machine” would seem to be a digital-era detective story as Cody pores over sound files of German ambulance sirens and Virginia’s Facebook posts, trying to suss out his girlfriend’s whereabouts. But Wigon dispenses with that question quickly, at least for the audience, to build suspense in another way as he makes a film about a long-distance relationship unlike any other, the distance at issue being emotional space rather than physical miles. As Cody and Virginia lead separate lives outside of their late evening video chats, the two are revealed to want very different things out of their relationships, which in turn ratchets up the tension in their increasingly fraught conversations.
Yet in part to Wigon’s canny plotting and the fine work of cinematographer Rob Leitzell, who previously shot Benh Zeitlin’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” precursor “Glory At Sea” and brings an airy feel that’s at a stark contrast to the trap that Cody and Virginia find themselves in, “The Heart Machine” never gets stuck in a rut itself. It shouldn’t constitute a spoiler to say that one of the film’s wonderful surprises is to discover it isn’t about Cody’s search for Virginia as much as it is about Virginia’s search for herself, an exploration that gives Sheil the broadest range of emotions she’s had to play since establishing herself as someone you can hardly take your eyes off of in such films as “Sun Don’t Shine” and “Green.”
Sheil proves to be winning as Virginia, seductive enough to keep Cody’s suspicions in check while leaving a little bit of mystery behind her smile to indicate something’s wrong. Gallagher Jr. isn’t asked to do quite as much as the brooding Cody, depriving the film of the crackling unpredictability that made his work in “Short Term 12” so indelible, but not his warmth, which opens Cody up to the inevitable pain of watching his doting affections for Virginia become an obsession of a far darker kind, the entire spectrum fed into by the same devices and social media feeds.
While it would seem that the film misses some greater dramatic opportunities with Cody’s work as an amateur sleuth, which mostly amounts to clumsy and occasionally amusing attempts to look into the private messages of those he thinks are Virginia’s associates, “The Heart Machine” manages to accommodate some very big ideas about the false sense of intimacy created by technology as it tells a very personal story. In marrying the two, Wigon makes an arresting first feature about two people who may be better off giving up their gadgetry than giving up on each other.