It’s always exciting when indie films begin with strong cinematic form. Directed by Gille Klabin, The Wave opens with a double shot of intrigue, as the camera explores the confines of a trashed house while voiceover narration immediately establishes the premise. A confused man, seated in a chair and staring at flashing bright lights, needs to unlock a personal mystery. As a whole, The Wave avoids the usual trappings of “The Night Before” dramedies in favor of a complex story about acceptance and accountability, about spiritual chaos and harmony.
Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers) stars as Frank, a married insurance lawyer who enjoys some nightlife fun with best friend Jeff (Donald Faison, Scrubs). After meeting a seductive patron named Theresa (Sheila Vand, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and consuming a hallucinogenic at three in the morning, he continues to trip out as the day progresses. At home, wife Cheryl (Sarah Minnich, Better Call Saul) rightly unloads on Frank, who frantically asks for money and smells like he’s been doing much more than financial deals. By sorting through fractured memories, Frank attempts to restore cerebral balance while processing his choices and the subsequent consequences.
The Wave benefits from Long’s central performance, as he shifts between Frank’s wide-eyed naiveté, situational posturing and nervous guy humor (see Thomas Middleditch’s Richard Hendricks in HBO’s Silicon Valley or every Jesse Eisenberg performance). With a film resume dating back to 1999, Long has portrayed similar character over the years, but this particular showing displays his ability to effectively (and repeatedly) pump the gas and brake, to play different music while retaining the same rhythm. And the jokes, courtesy of screenwriter Carl W. Lucas, aren’t just clever passing barbs that merely punctuate sequences, like the Overconfident Male who always ends a scene by chomping away on some type of snack. Instead, The Wave’s comedy sets up key final act moments as Frank continuously spirals out of control. Incidentally, the character epiphanies feel more potent. There’s heart, humor and substance in The Wave.
Both Vand and Minnich make the most of their screen time with wildly-different performances. As Frank’s partner-in-slime, (the duo lock lips while taking the aforementioned hallucinogenic), Vand exudes all the magnetic allure that keeps Frank properly confused and worried about what’s going down. He doesn’t understand the night before, and certainly doesn’t trust himself anymore. Vand’s pitch-perfect interpretation of a Nighttime Goddess — some type of everlasting light — counterbalances Minnich’s devilish performance as a woman who unloads a Black Canary scream while Frank pieces together the puzzle. A sense of true romance is unearthed in The Wave, thanks to nuanced performances by Long, Vand and Minnich.
The Wave’s compositions and atmospheric color palette build upon the strong foundation. Cinematographer Aaron Grasso (The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience) delivers fluid motion shots to underline the inherent journey, while static images poignantly capture Frank’s state of mind; his unresolved hopes and fears. The beauty of it all is that Lucas’ tight script allows his peers more flexibility throughout. The attention to detail foreshadows narrative revelations, but not quite like Ari Aster’s thoughtful yet blatant symbolism in the 2019 drama Midsommar. The Wave spotlights the proverbial writing on the wall for its most flawed characters, but also makes sure to settle on the base-level humanity of others. The result is an affecting and forward-thinking film that pinpoints what it means to be self-aware.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor. He’s written for RogerEbert.com, REBELLER, Fandor and Screen Rant, among other outlets.