A young social worker named Mia is traveling to a small community in the countryside. She's on her way to administer a behavior-modifying "patch" that guarantees happiness, now required for children.
But then she meets a precocious 10-year-old girl named Kaleigh, who refuses to accept the patch. As Mia tries to persuade Kaleigh about the patch's benefits, she begins to question all that she believes about what it means to be happy.
Written and directed by Ryan Patch, this soulfully engaging sci-fi short asks big questions about a fascinating knot of issues, ranging from mental health, medication, children and our social obligations to ourselves and one another. But while the narrative gives rise to thought-provoking questions, it does through distinctly humanistic, empathetic storytelling based on intelligent writing and sensitive performances.
The film establishes its genre and a sense of the near future with a few judicious and efficient special effects. But the real work of world-building is contained in the writing, especially in the assumptions underlying the dialogue and action. Mia has a task to accomplish, ensuring compliance with a set of regulations made possible by a so-called advance in technology. The "happiness patch" offers a steady stream of neurotransmitters that regulate mood and emotions, and children are required to be on it -- something Mia must investigate and make happen for Kayleigh.
After a brief scene with Kayleigh's mother that outlines the conflict at hand, the narrative essentially becomes a two-hander between the social worker and the child she's tasked to observe and convince. Shifting the visual approach from crisp clarity to a bucolic lyricism that emphasizes the enchantment of Kayleigh's private world, the scene is charming in its portrayal of a growing interaction of trust and respect between Mia and Kayleigh. The writing reveals a keen eye and ear for how imaginative, smart and curious children are, and young actor Audrey Bennett offers a natural, appealing performance that brings these qualities to the fore.
But as Mia spends more time interrogating and observing Kayleigh, she starts to see the young girl on her terms. Mia goes into her evaluation of Kayleigh with one set of ideas, but actor Sunita Mani beautifully communicates a dawning realization of Kayleigh's innate curiosity and quirkiness and questioning of whether or not she needs the happiness patch. In doing so, she makes a fateful decision for the young girl -- and begins perhaps to question her entire worldview.
"Regulation" works on the emotional level as an encounter between a young girl and an adult charged with an aspect of her care, with appealing performances. But it succeeds on a larger level because the question that Mia grapples with are the ones that the audience is asked to examine. In a time where notions of self-care, mental health and wellness have permeated mainstream discourse, we ask just what it means to be "well" -- and who does our wellness serve, anyway? Is it just another point of conformity? And what does it mean to truly thrive? As Mia leaves Kayleigh to her fate, the questions linger, with a new lens with which to look at our own lives.