By bouncing short radio waves off the ionosphere, shortwave radio broadcasts travel long distances and are hard to block. That has made it the perfect medium for Voice of America, the BBC World Service, Radio Taiwan International, and the mysterious but very terrestrial “numbers stations.” Someone else might be using shortwave signals. In fact, they might be something else entirely. For mysterious reasons, a grieving mother seems to be particularly receptive to their signal in Ryan Gregory Phillips’ Shortwave (trailer here), which premiered at the 2016 Dances with Films.
Blame indie booksellers. During the brief moment Isabel Harris left her daughter alone for story time in their local bookstore, she vanished without a trace. Harris has not coped with their loss well, but her husband Josh tries to be patient. Inconveniently, Isabel’s hospitalization stints have interrupted his SETI work scanning for alien transmissions. However, soon after the Harrises move into their new home (for a new start), Josh and his insensitive partner finally isolate the fateful signal.
Their company duly throws them a party, but viewers know any celebration will be premature. That is because we have seen some of the strange visions that are plaguing Isabel. Even more problematically, she suffers seizure-like symptoms whenever she tries to leave their new home. Yet, her hope is so strong, she embraces the dreams and hallucinations, seeking clues to her daughter’s fate within them. Initially, Josh assumes her erratic behavior is simply another manifestation of her mentally instability, but eventually he too realizes that something uncannily strange is afoot.
You can see some of the best and worst genre filmmaking strategies compete against each other in Shortwave. On the plus side, Phillips implies far more than he shows in the first two acts, which steadily builds the tension and suspense through mystery and uncertainty. He also thoroughly unnerves viewers with the eerie sound design. Unfortunately, Phillips seems to periodically lose faith in his material, resorting to gauzy dream montages that only serve to obscure the narrative clarity. Similarly, the dodgy nature of Marconi, Josh Harris’s corporate employer with the loaded name makes little rational sense. Seriously, whether they are idealistically pure or rotten to the core, it is never clear how they expect to make a profit from his research.
Although there is very definitely an outside agency at work, in some ways Shortwave is closely akin to Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. As Isabel Harris, Juanita Ringeling falls apart at the seams quite impressively. Cristobal Tapia Montt also has some affecting moments as the man trying to keep her together. Kyle Davis is also entertainingly obnoxious as Josh’s ultra-blunt partner.