Review: ‘Waiting for the Light to Change’ (2023), starring Joyce Ha, Jin Park, Qun Chi, Sam Straley and Erik Barrientos

September 16, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Jin Park, Qun Chi, Erik Barrientos, Joyce Ha and Sam Straley in “Waiting for the Light to Change” (Photo courtesy of Prima Materia Pictures)

“Waiting for the Light to Change” (2023)

Directed by Linh Tran

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Waiting for the Light to Change” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with one white person and one Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: As five people in their 20s gather at a beachfront home for a week-long vacation, they grapple with various issues, such as a love triangle, relationship loyalty, emotional baggage and uncertainty over their futures. 

Culture Audience: “Waiting for the Light to Change” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching understated but well-acted dramas about young adults going through life transitions.

Jin Park and Joyce Ha in “Waiting for the Light to Change” (Photo courtesy of Prima Materia Pictures)

“Waiting for the Light to Change” is a quietly poignant drama that authentically shows what it means to have a quarter-life crisis. You need an open mind to watch this low-key movie. If you’re expecting melodrama or cute antics, you’ll be disappointed. The movie’s story, which takes place over the course of one week, is filmed in a way where viewers have to pay attention to offhand remarks in conversations to get the personal backgrounds of the five characters who are the only people in the movie. There is no voiceover narration from a protagonist that would make it easier to introduce the characters and to explain who they are to each other.

Directed by Linh Tran, “Waiting for the Light to Change” (Tran’s feature-film directorial debut) had its world premiere at the 2023 Slamdance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize for Best Narrative Feature. Tran co-wrote the “Waiting for the Light to Change” screenplay with Jewells Santos and Delia Van Praag. The movie takes place at one location (a fairly remote beachfront property in an unnamed U.S. city) and was actually filmed in Michigan.

People have become so accustomed to seeing Hollywood studios’ portrayals of people in their early-to-mid 20s as being always ready to have snappy banter or doing something extreme to get attention, they think that’s the “norm” of how people in ther 20s should be on screen. “Waiting for the Light to Change” doesn’t follow that over-used formula. The characters in this movie have gathered at this beach house for a relaxing vacation—and that is mostly what is portrayed, so don’t expect any surprise bombshells.

Even though this vacation is supposed to be laid-back, there are undercurrents of discontent that come out in realistic ways. The characters often leave many things left unsaid, because they don’t want to ruin their relationships with each other. However, their actions and body language speak volumes about their true feelings. Much of the credit goes to how the cast members skillfully intepret the dialogue in the movie’s emotionally intelligent screenplay.

“Waiting for the Light to Change” begins by showing the arrival of four of the five people who are on this vacation. They have all traveled to this beach property in the same car. Viewers don’t find out everything about these characters right away. But it’s established early on that best friends Amy (played by Jin Park) and Kim (played by Joyce Ha) are comfortable enough with each other that Kim can squat down on the front lawn of the house and urinate in front of Amy, who is standing in front of Kim to give her some privacy.

Why is Kim urinating on the front lawn instead of in a toilet? Through conversations, it’s revealed that Kim’s boyfriend Jay (played by Sam Straley) has a grandmother who owns the house, but he didn’t tell this grandmother in advance that he would be staying at the house with some friends. And so, when Jay arrives at the house with Kim, Amy and Kim’s Chinese immigrant cousin Lin (played by Qun Chi), they find themselves temporarily locked out of the house. Jay doesn’t know where the spare key is to the front door, so he has to call his grandmother to find out where the key is.

Eventually, the four visitors get inside the house and are soon joined by Alex (played by Erik Barrientos), who is a friend of Jay’s. Alex has traveled to the house separately from the rest of the group. Alex, who is 22, is slightly younger than the rest of the group. Amy is 25, and the movie implies that she and Kim are about the same age and have known each other for years. Kim and Amy now live far apart from each other, for reasons that are not stated in the movie. It’s mentioned that Kim bought Amy’s airplane ticket for this vacation.

Kim’s personality is strong-willed and controlling, but not in a mean-spirited way. It’s in a way that seems to say, “I care so much about you, I’m going to tell you what I think is best.” Amy is more introverted and less likely to express her feelings. Jay is a “regular guy” who later reveals his insecurities. Lin is sweet-natured but not very intuitive at figuring out the dynamics going on in this group. Alex, the most “rebellious” one in the group, is a stoner with a fondness for marijuana. He doesn’t talk about what he does to make money.

Lin, who also in her mid-20s, is sharing a room with Amy. Kim and Jay are staying in another room. Alex has a room to himself. “Waiting for the Light to Change” is a conversation-driven movie, where scenes are intentionally cut off abruptly, as if the viewers are watching a documentary, and the filmmakers suddenly don’t want viewers to see what happened next. It’s an interesting way of making viewers speculate what could have happened next and then pick up the clues in the next scene.

Through these conversations, viewers find out that Amy and Jay have had a close platonic friendship for years, but she’s been secretly attracted to him in a romantic way. Meanwhile, Alex is casually acquainted with Amy and has a crush on her, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Amy thinks Alex is too young for her. Lin has a boyfriend in China, but Lin worries about how the long distance will affect their relationship.

It’s also revealed that Kim is the only one in the group whose career is thriving. It’s not stated what she does for a living, but Amy expresses some envy to Kim that Kim seems to “have it all,” when it comes to a career and a love life. It isn’t until more than halfway through the movie that it’s revealed that Jay is unemployed and was recently fired from his job as a restaurant cook.

Amy’s occupation isn’t stated, but since Kim paid for Amy’s airplane ticket, it can be presumed that Amy is not doing well financially. Lin mentions early on in the movie that she’s a student who has a job, but she doesn’t really like her job. Lin also says in a conversation with Alex that she had an unhappy childhood because her parents got divorced when she was 2 years old, and she grew up poor.

Alex is the only character in the movie who sometimes looks awkwardly placed. Alex just shows up and only seems to be in the story as the person who brought the drugs (they all get high later on with some other substances) and as someone who could possibly create another love triangle. Alex’s friendship with Jay is never really explained.

“Waiting for the Light to Change” also touches on self-esteem issues when it comes to weight and physical appearances. It isn’t mentioned until much later in the movie that Amy used to be overweight but has lost enough weight to be considered slender. Observant viewers will notice that this weight loss is the catalyst for a lot of Amy’s thoughts and actions. And because women usually get judged more harshly than men for weight/physical appearance issues, the female perspective in this movie is shown with a lot of genuine clarity.

Formerly overweight people who go through the physical transformation of becoming slender often describe how they have difficulty coping with how people treat them differenty (usually with more respect or more sexual attraction) as a slender person, compared to when they were of a bigger size. A formerly overweight person can feel like the same person inside, so it’s often a rude awakening when they see how much physical appearance can make a big difference in how they are treated by people around them. Depending on the formerly overweight person’s personality and self-esteem, this reality check can make their lives better or worse.

Amy is clearly going through this psychological adjustment. For years, Jay has always treated her like a friend. But now that she is considered more “physically attractive” by society’s standards, she wonders if Jay might look at her differently and could possibly be attracted to her too. At the same time, Amy doesn’t want to hurt Kim by telling Kim that she has strong romantic feelings for Jay.

In one of the first scenes in the movie, there’s a very telling conversation between Amy and Kim that makes much more sense later on when it’s revealed that Amy used to be overweight. In the scene where Kim is urinating on the lawn, Kim asks Amy, “How much do you weigh now?” Amy replies that she weighs 130 pounds. “I weigh more than you now,” Kim says.

It’s a very authentic scene between two female friends that rings true, because this conversation is Kim’s way of trying to make Amy feel good about Amy’s current weight. In the production notes for “Waiting for the Light to Change,” director/co-writer Tran says her director’s statement that the movie is partially based on a real-life experience she had of going on a vacation with her best friend and some other people, after Tran went through a significant weight loss. Tran says that her best friend also paid for the airplane ticket for this trip.

Amy and Kim have a close friendship, but there’s also an unspoken rivalry between them. In a private conversation on the beach, Kim asks Amy how her sex life is. Amy says, “I have sex, but not as much as other people.” Kim suggests that Amy have a sexual fling with Alex. Amy rejects the idea. Things happen later that show how some people can manipulate sexual attraction for certain agendas.

Even though Amy thinks Kim “has it all,” Kim confesses to Amy that she’s not sure if she really loves Jay. It seems to be a relationship where Kim and Jay enjoy each other’s company, for the most part, but there are signs that Kim and Jay aren’t very compatible and are staying together because they don’t want to be alone. After Amy finds out that Kim really isn’t in love with Jay, Amy has to decide what she has to do about her own romantic feelings for Jay.

“Waiting for the Light to Change” isn’t completely focused on these love entanglements. The movie also adeptly portrays the quarter-life crisis feelings of people in their 20s who feel like underachievers in a society where people can get rich in their 20s by being entrepreneurs or social media stars. What’s interesting about this movie is that the characters don’t use any technology (aside from making a few phone calls by cell phone), which implies that they want this vacation to be a “digital detox” retreat from the outside world.

One of the best scenes in “Waiting for the Light to Change” that portrays the angst of a quarter-life crisis is when Amy and Jay are making pancakes together in the house’s kitchen. Jay mentions his unemployment but he doesn’t really want to talk about it or his unsuccessful job search. “I just feel really empty and embarrassed,” Jay tells Amy. “It’s like quicksand.”

All of the cast members do well in their roles, but Park, Ha and Straley (who is one of the producers of the movie) stand out the most, due in large part because they have the best-written characters in the film. “Waiting for the Light to Change” might move too slowly for viewers who are expecting there to be zippy banter between this group of young people. This is a movie filled with scenes of quiet conversations, but the emotional implications in these scenes are loud and clear for viewers with enough life experience.

Prima Materia Pictures released “Waiting for the Light to Change” in New York City on September 15, 2023. The movie will be released in Chicago on September 22, 2023. Freestyle Digital Media will release “Waiting for the Light to Change” on digital and VOD on October 20, 2023.

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