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Review: 'Lapsis' is a Dark, Effective Satire of the Gig Economy

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday May 11, 2021
Review: 'Lapsis' is a Dark, Effective Satire of the Gig Economy

Noah Hutton's second full-length feature film is a witty black comedy that takes aim at American capitalism and its many exploitative (and scam-ready) facets.

Superficially a work of near-future science fiction, "Lapsis" is actually a thoroughgoing and deep-reaching satire. Hutton more frequently works in documentaries, and he has a sense for logical, real-world cause and effect, but also the odd and outlandish wrinkles of the human experience. "Lapsis" locates a space at the intersection of all those things, and there is where it revels.

Ray (Dean Imperial) is the kind of working class guy that blue collar family dramas are built around, and this film has the makings of just such a movie; Ray's younger brother, Jamie (Babe Howard) suffers from a chronic fatigue affliction called Omnia. (In one particularly smart and pointed moment, a character, hearing of Jamie's illness, asks, "Isn't that a thing that's all made up?")

Ray used to be in "waste management" - that and his accent, ostensibly from Queens, play into what someone refers to as his " '70s mobster vibe" - but now he delivers lost luggage for a sketchy company operating out of an airport. Needing some extra cash to pay for Jamie's medical bills, Ray goes to Felix (James McDaniel), who runs an even sketchier business dealing in second-hand medallions for a class of independent contract workers known as cablers. These are men and women who venture out into the wilderness for days and weeks at a time, running cable across forest floors and wild terrain in order to connect quantum computing hubs in order to boost the efficiency (and profitability) of the stock market.

The cablers have to deal with all the usual problems that management passes down to labor. These include fees, artificially generated competition that promotes division and prevents unionization, constant monitoring of their activities, and, of course, competition with tireless "carts," mechanical drones that crawl through the forest laying cables of their own. Carts are slower than people, but they never stop; if a human cabler is "lapped" by a cart, he or she loses an assigned route and the payday that goes with it.

Ray is clueless about the technology he's dealing with, and a neophyte to the rituals and codes of what is, in essence, a transitory labor force. His medallion comes pre-loaded with a trail name - "Lapsis Beeftech" - and a horde of electronic "points" that he can cash in for goods and services in a marginal economy that has grown up to support the cablers, but when those he encounters on the trail react to his trail name with a mixture of shock, apprehension, and fury, Ray begins to suspect that something's not right about his arrangement with Felix - something other than the 30% cut Felix takes from his earnings, that is.

But what can he do? He's got James enrolled in an expensive clinic that supposedly treats Omnia, and he's hoping against hope that the clinic isn't just another health care scam. He's also hoping he can stay ahead of the carts that dog his heels, driving Ray ever forward despite the fact that he is desperately out of shape.

Enter Anna (Madeline Wise), an experienced cabler who knows the ins and outs of the trade - and also knows more about the original Lapsis Beeftech, whom everyone seems to hate, than anybody else is willing to share with Ray. As a dark story about Lapsis finally comes to light, Ray's frustrations coalesce. But can he fight an inherently abusive system and hope to keep himself - and his brother - healthy?

Hutton's plot combines many of the age's hot-button anxieties - economic insecurity, mechanization, wage theft, anti-worker policies, union busting, health care - and spins them into a dark and amusing tale that occasionally (but only to the extent that's needed) lapses into expository overtness. While the technology seems a little hazy (simply stringing cable along forest floors? This is how we improve the stock market?), the film's sense for human corruption, and human virtue, is flawless - and its satire, while bleak, is dead-on.

This modest film relies on character rather than budget, and suspense instead of bloated production values. Meantime, the cast - in particular, Imperial, Howard, and Wise - embody their characters, and the dilemmas they face, with skill and commitment, enhancing Hutton's smart filmmaking.

"Lapsis" premieres on DVD and digital May 11

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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