Waiting for the Light to Change feels like a very young film. It’s director is young, it’s stars are young, and the film was the result of what seems like a very collaborative process among young folks, many in or just out of school. Thus, while the film is primarily about exploring their experiences, it can be read by say “old man film critics” like myself as a film that is in some sense “about” being 25. There is, of course, no universal experience of being 25, even in this country among demographically similar folks. Many aspects of my life have been unpredictable and chaotic compared to the characters of this film. However, despite all the chaos in my life from locations to relationships to income, I have never felt personally more unsure of who I was and what I was doing as I did in the years between college and what was for me graduate school. Despite our differences and while many of us may have found ourselves in different places, doing different kinds of things from 22-26, many folks I know report a sense of internal chaos. Even those who were personally feeling centered at that time could tell tales of the chaos among their peers. Waiting for the Light to Change feels in a large part an unintentional meditation on this state of being, because it was made by folks in this time in their lives simply trying to tell an effective but artistic version of their own stories.
Waiting for the Light to Change is set during a time of transitions for it’s characters, from school to work, from friendships that were once treasured, and even from one version of yourself to another. It is the debut film from Linh Tran, who began the film while in film school. It tells the story of Amy who joins her friends at a lake front getaway some years after school. She has recently undergone dramatic weight loss but is still unsure of herself. As we get to know the friends gathered it becomes clear that Amy is torn between her friendship with Kim, the nature of which is transitioning with time and distance, and her previous crush on Kim’s boyfriend. The drama and tensions between the five 20 somethings gathered might seem like pulp romance, the Gen z version of a soap opera, but through the characters and the film style, Waiting for the Light to Change elevates the narrative. There is subtle insight, thoughtful dialouge, and an inclination toward subtext that is unexpected. There is a lot of familiar cringe inducing moments of awkwardness but there is also something uniquely charming I could not help but be entranced by. Despite my distance in age and experience from these characters I understood the emotional landscape of the film thanks to the strength of the filmmaking.
I think telling a story that is this balanced and clear about the time of life you are in as a creator is difficult and is an accomplishment. Tran is a first time feature director and some of the film feels like a first effort, but there is a lot of insight as well. That does not mean all of the movie works though. There is an opportunity here to explore some of the emotional tensions exacerbated say by racialized or immigrant identity, or by the demands of a capitalist world on recent graduates, and the film is a bit mor distracted by the melodrama of it all. That being said, the content is often elevated by the style. The pacing, long and beautiful takes, even the ways the camera moves and does not move might remind some viewers of directors like Ozu or Hong Sang-soo and I suspect that is intentional. If this were filmed with a less deft eye, with actors less comfortable in these long scenes, the story would feel like it was less of a narrative and more like a story over heard at a lunch table. The basic events of the story play out without much dynamic tension and at times it can feel like the stakes could not be lower. Audiences might feel torn as I did between a craft that feels insightful, but a frustration that the characters despite having the elements of a deeper reflection are never quite able to arrive there.
This film was conceived and started production during the more restrictive moments of the pandemic, and Tran has discussed how the script was partly improvised in rehearsals and then finalized for set. This natural improvisation by young actors around familiar scenes does create a strange combination of both authenticity but also poetic depiction. It feels natural, but plays at a dream like pace. Tran has the camera sometimes viewing these characters from a great distance, moving with them, and at other times we are intimately in their space for their most vulnerable conversations. The dialogue can feel stilted but that always feels intentional, a depiction of folks who are somehow comfortable being vulnerable but also unable to fully share what they are feeling. Is this a film that represents a generation? How would I know as the tail end of Gen X? It does FEEL insightful to me, but I must admit that idea should be taken with a grain of salt due to how entirely washed I am.
I was very much charmed by the film, but also frustrated a bit by an inability to maybe take on a more complicated narrative. These characters are a bit more privileged than my experience, and I do not have the same identity issues or gender troubles that are at play in the background of the film, yet I was still able to feel very connected to the story. Waiting for the Light to Change might be for some audiences to slight to be compelling. A love triangle told in such meditated and measured form, might not appeal to all audiences. For me, it was charming, impressively executed, and promising of a future for Tran. The ways the film incorporates interesting techniques in both filming and acting allowed it in my estimation to transcend some of its limitations, perhaps even its age, and is definitely got me excited for what this film maker does next.