RAY TINCELLI, A good-humored, pot-bellied, middle-aged guy with a “’70s mobster” vibe and money troubles, is looking for a new gig. His day job as a courier for a sketchy lost baggage company isn’t cutting it. Played with hangdog charm by Dean Imperial—he looks like Jeremy Piven gone to seed—Tincelli is a brusque Queens dude who could be imported from any number of prestigious cable dramas. For these reasons and more, he’s the offbeat, magnetic center of Lapsis, the funny and surprisingly humane new science fiction indie from first-time feature director Noah Hutton.
The grubby world Ray inhabits looks like ours, but the details are slightly skewed. Ray’s younger half-brother Jamie (Babe Howard), a once-hearty hiker, is now sidelined with a mysterious chronic fatigue syndrome called Omnia. This syndrome is widespread enough that there’s an entire scammy cottage industry around treating it, and Ray is hoping to get his brother into a treatment center. After his courier job is kaput, he seeks advice from a slippery neighborhood character named Felix (James McDaniel), who hooks Ray up with a “cabling medallion” as long as Ray promises to share a cut of his profits. A twist on a taxi medallion, the cabling medallion is a black-market ticket into the world of “cabling,” a bustling new line of contract work where “cablers” spend their days stringing yards upon yards of fiber-optic cables through wooded areas to attach to large metal boxes plopped in forests. It’s all in service of quantum computing, a new information superstructure that has taken over the globe. According to Felix, they’re paid handsomely for their troubles. And so Ray goes forth, into the woods, huffing and puffing his way toward the enigmatic boxes and potential financial freedom.
Lapsis, which is currently available on VOD, is a film in the tradition of lo-fi sci-fi, a genre of independent, dialog-dense science fiction without high-budget spectacle. Think Robot & Frank, Primer, or Being John Malkovich. Or think Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, another satire about the gig economy set in a slightly alternate, slightly futuristic reality. Both are political parables, using genre to prod the callous excesses of capitalism. But while Sorry to Bother You is balls-to-the-wall bonkers, Lapsis is a gentler outing, unspooling its story through long hikes in the woods.
The mechanics of cabling make little sense, but the film isn’t concerned with explaining the logic of its quantum computing empire. The setup is as arcane to the average person as bitcoin mining, because the details don’t matter. What matters is that it’s the newest iteration of grunt work in a global economy reliant on low-paying, no-benefits contractors for human fuel. During his first week on the job, Ray doesn’t learn a thing about what plugging the wires into the boxes actually achieves; what he does learn is that the cabling underclass is justifiably and mightily pissed off—and that the cabling medallion he used once belonged to a notorious former cabler known as “Lapsis Beeftech.”
He learns even more once he strikes up a friendship with Anna (Madeline Wise), a seasoned cabler attempting to organize her coworkers. The cabling company uses tiny doglike robots as pacers for its human workers; if a robot passes them on the trail, it can steal their route and take their money. They’re the bane of the cablers, who scheme to derail the little machines, and the brainchild of the original Lapsis Beeftech. Anna helps Ray trap one of the pacers, and they become confidants. And despite his best efforts to keep his head down and continue earning, Ray is quickly embroiled in a larger plot to find the original Lapsis and instigate a worker revolt.
Hutton builds a big world on a micro budget. Before he starts working, Ray is chauffeured to a cabling expo, where chirpy salespersons effuse about the benefits of the gig, the fresh air and exercise, with a hustle-culture fervor familiar to anyone with acquaintances unfortunately involved in multi-level marketing. The cablers store their gear in the garages of middle-class people who live near the woods, a transaction facilitated by a fictional sharing-economy service; these people are happy to profit from storing backpacks and boots but less thrilled when scruffy workers show up. With a few economical scenes, Hutton also gives the cabling community a lived-in feel; they have in-jokes and slang, they hang out after work, they know the local kids. It’s part hiker culture (trail names) and part blue-collar bonhomie (giving each other tips about how to avoid pissing off management).
The late-night campfire chats when they pitch their tents for the evening are reminiscent of the camaraderie at the elderly wanderer meetup in Nomadland, another recent film about itinerant gig workers. But while Nomadland presents an elegiac portrait of an underclass who celebrate their dignity despite their conditions, Lapsis, with sweaty, bumbling Ray flailing through all its otherwise-bucolic nature shots, is less inclined to aestheticize precarity. Instead, it pulls off a tricky tonal balancing act, avoiding didaticism but quietly advancing a barbed critique of the gig economy. It’s lighthearted, but it still has teeth.
*By Kate Knibbs, WIRED*