Despite some narrative clunkiness, Waiting for the Light to Change is a beautiful debut film that will certainly speak to young adults.
A beautiful stillness overtakes Waiting for the Light to Change, even as a storm lurks under the surface. Towards the end of director Linh Tran’s debut feature, each of the main characters, Kim (Joyce Ha), Amy (Jin Park), Lin (Qui Chi), Jay (Sam Straley), and Alex (Erik Barrientos), looks up to the sky to see an army of dark clouds. The group has been enjoying a getaway to a beachside house, though some tension has been subtly brewing among them. The strength of the film is its subtlety, and its weakness is when that subtlety is sacrificed for straightforwardness.
Tran, a young filmmaker, places the confusion of young adulthood and the angst of age at the film’s forefront. “I’m 25 and I haven’t done sh*t,” exclaims Amy to her best friend Kim during an early beach scene. That attitude of feeling unaccomplished haunts each character in ways that are both made manifest and remain hidden. The main source of tension involves Kim and Jay, who are dating, and Amy, who has had feelings for Jay since high school. With this seemingly clichéd set-up, Tran offers something unique. She does not use this simple story as a launching pad to make broader claims about the struggles of her generation. Instead, she relies on simply telling this story, and the story organically does the work of looking into and commenting on the psyche of 20-somethings in the 2020s.
Tran’s direction elevates her inconsistent script. Her use of long takes allows the much of the tension and drama to occur in frame, effectively inducing feelings of peace, happiness, confusion, awkwardness, and sadness, depending on the scene. She and cinematographer David Foy use natural lighting and their breathtaking filming locations in Michigan to create an isolated, beautiful environment for their characters to inhabit. There are shots in this film that are truly gorgeous – especially shots involving the water that feel reminiscent of Portrait of a Lady on Fire – and highlight the theme of dark tensions that may be under the seemingly put-together exterior.
Though the film is beautiful and relevant to a specific age group, there are times where the themes come across as clunky. Some conversations and moments seemed forced, where it seems like the script is calling for something that cannot happen organically. Much of the story is dependent on realistic dialogue and natural moments, so when something happens, or a character says something that feels unnatural, it is even more noticeable to the audience. The best moments occur when there is subtext boiling under the surface of the text. It is when that subtext becomes the text, however, that the movie suffers. Thankfully, these moments happen sporadically and inconsistently, and can be overlooked by focusing on the moments of real, natural emotion on the part of the actors.
Around Waiting for the Light to Change’s midpoint, Kim and Amy approach a tree. The tree is firmly rooted and overlooks the water. This scene comes shortly before the storm scene. At one moment, Tran’s characters feel fine, firmly rooted, and at peace, and the film gives imagery to symbolize those feelings. But the storm still comes. The turning point comes when Kim and Amy finally confront each other, when the emotional storm makes its landfall. Tran seems to be saying that one cannot control or subdue their feelings forever. This scene, and the film overall, serves as a warning call to her generation.
The ending moments follow this throughline, while suggesting that resolution is not always inevitable. These moments are proof the flashes of brilliance within Waiting for the Light to Change. Despite the flaws that come with a debut, this movie is sure to speak to a young generation that feels like it is going through the storms of life.
Waiting for the Light to Change was screened at the Cinema Columbus Film Festival on April 29, and will be released in US theaters on October 6, 2023.