Discontinued (2022)

Discontinued opens with Sarah (Ashley Hutchinson), filmed from behind, sitting and contemplating an idyllic lake, as a male voice calmly intones: “Return to a place where you are at peace, and reflect on the idea of impermanence. The universe keeps moving, and nothing will remain as it is, good or bad.”

This is the film’s first discontinuity. For Sarah is not in fact by a lake, but sitting in her parked car listening to a recording of a ‘calming midday meditation’. The lake is not real. but a merely imaginary haven of relaxation in her head – and it has provided only the most temporary of escapist shelters from the constant worries that rule Sarah’s life. Sarah lives in exile from the Paradise that she wants. A smart, idealistic college graduate, she has been laid off from her ‘dream job’, and is now unsuccessfully employed in door-to-door sales of solar panels. A committed, catastrophising environmentalist with a strongly ingrained seam of apanthropy, she has a tendency to fixate on the coming end of the world, and to wallow in the responsibility and guilt that our species must bear in its own self-imposed destruction. 

Without an actual Eden to visit, Sarah’s only refuge from the world’s ills is her own sarcasm, which she wraps around herself like a defensive bulwark, much as her neighbour and landlord Barry (Bill Sorice), a former Wall Street entrepreneur turned hippy, retreats into ‘shroom-based excursions from reality. Sarah’s ironic wit is the prime source of comedy in writer/director/cinematographer Trevor Peckham’s feature debut – but it is also clear from early on that it serves as cover for underlying mental illness whose symptoms include heightened anxiety, social withdrawal, depression, extreme insomnia and crippling despair. 

Sarah’s psychiatrist (Robert Picardo) tries and repeatedly fails to get the morose millennial to lose her preoccupation with what she cannot control or change, while her best friend Kayla (Michelle Yazvac) just tries to get her laid, sending her on a blind date with the odious beer bro Tucker (Michael Bonini) – who is enough to make Sarah lose all faith in humanity again (“I would gladly push you off a cliff,” Sarah tells him in disgust at his behaviour). So that very night, obsessing once more over her own – and the world’s – mortality, Sarah sits at home alone, and swallows far more pills than someone who wants to go on living would.  

This suicide attempt introduces the film’s second discontinuity, and an apparently radical shift in genre. For as Sarah lies back on her couch waiting for death to come, a presenter (Langston Fishburne) appears on her television set, and announces that this universe is in fact one of many simulations, that the simulated reality will be discontinued in exactly a week, and that all people (or ‘sentient inhabitants’) currently in it must choose whether to move on to a place where they can live forever in their favourite memories, or stay behind in the abandoned experiment. 

This is where Discontinued enters a new phase. For what had started as a comic character study now becomes science fiction, juggling the simulation theory of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s teleseries World On A Wire (1973), Alejandro Amenábar’s Open Your Eyes (1997) – which is slyly name-checked in the opening scene – Josef Rusnak’s The Thirteenth Floor (1999), the Wachowskis’ The Matrix (1999) and Rodney Ascher’s documentary A Glitch in the Matrix (2021). 

Yet as Sarah faces, and finds herself unexpectedly comfortable with, the destabilising notion that the world which has been causing her so much anguish is not in fact real, the metaphysics of this virtual universe are more foregrounded than its mechanics, with the emphasis more on fiction than on science, and with no special effects beyond the cheesey television broadcast. And as she counts down to the apocalypse like the characters in Don McKellar’s Last Night (1998), Zak Hilditch’s These Final Hours (2013) and Camille Griffin’s Silent Night (2021), her grapplings with rapidly impending mortality continue to be psychologised – indeed, she continues to see her psychiatrist, who in a neat rôle reversal now seems more anxious than she ever did. And her eschatological dilemma is also theologised, as she must choose, with help from an angel-like Guide (also Fishburne), between a heaven of blissful memories on eternal loop like the one envisaged in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998), and a depopulated post-rapture world like the one in television’s The Leftovers (2013-17). Real or virtual, Sarah’s experiences and options have barely changed.   

Where her parents Sharon (Risa Benson) and Gary (Charlie Talbert) and near everyone else opt to leave, Sarah stays behind, and for a time genuinely flourishes in her self-sufficient solitude, where the other people that previously made her life hell are now absent – but as this newly discovered Eden, complete with the idyllic lake from the opening scene and even with apple trees, turns out after all not to be hers alone, her old problems return in highly compressed form, and she must once again make a choice of whether to keep clinging on or just to let go.

Should I stay or should I go is a question that has both philosophical and religious resonances, but for Sarah it is primarily a psychological crux, as she works through the same personal problems in multiple realities. You can take Discontinued entirely at face value, and see Sarah’s quest for an ideal, desirable existence as unfolding in a virtual world where nothing is real and even consequences lack real consequences – or alternatively you can regard most of the film’s narrative as the last rush of confused thoughts in the fracturing mind of a young woman sat all alone on her sofa, as she succumbs to an overdose of pills and is filled with pressing life-or-death questions about guilt, judgement and final destination.

“What we think, we become,” Barry tells Sarah, adding “We all wind up in the same place anyway.” No matter where Sarah is, or how artificial her environment (be it midday meditation, simulated world or dying dream), she has to find, or perhaps make, her own peace and her own end – and the virtual world of cinema is more than suitable as a medium for allegorising the passage from life to death that we are all undertaking along with Sarah. Ultimately, the laughs dissipate and the gravity sets in, as Discontinued brings its themes of mental illness, existential crisis and suicide into the light – but the final scene, set in the same tranquil, possibly unreal location as the opening, allows its damaged protagonist a moment of serenity – like a cherished memory – and a rare smile.

strap: Trevor Peckham’s semi-comic sort-of sci-fi follows a depressed millennial on her quest for real inner peace in an impermanent world

© Anton Bitel