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.

Review: ‘Once Upon a River,’ starring Kenadi DelaCerna, John Ashton, Tatanka Means, Ajuawak Kapashesit, Sam Straley, Coburn Goss, Lindsay Pulsipher and Kenn E. Head

October 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kenadi DelaCerna in “Once Upon a River” (Photo by Daniel Klutznick/Film Movement)

“Once Upon a River”

Directed by Haroula Rose

Culture Representation: Taking place in rural Michigan in 1977, the dramatic film “Once Upon a River” features a cast of Native Americans and white people (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 15-year-old girl experiences trauma and tragedies before, during and after her quest to find her mother, who abandoned her family the year before.

Culture Audience: “Once Upon a River” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in coming-of-age stories that lay it on thick with life’s harsh realities.

Kenadi DelaCerna and Tatanka Means in “Once Upon a River” (Photo by Daniel Klutznick/Film Movement)

There will be a point when anyone watching the dramatic film “Once Upon a River” will probably think, “How much more tragedy can one person take? What else can go wrong?” This emotionally moving film tells the story of a 15-year-old Native American girl in Michigan who goes through a lot of trauma in a relatively short period of time and who goes on a quest to find the mother who abandoned her. Kenadi DelaCerna makes a striking feature-film debut as the story’s beleaguered teenage protagonist who finds out how resilient she can be when so many bad things keep happening to her.

“Once Upon a River,” written and directed by Haroula Rose, is adapted from the novel of the same name by Bonnie Jo Campbell. The movie is also Rose’s feature-film debut, and it’s an uncompromising, unrelenting look at issues that go deep when it comes to family problems, feeling isolated, and reaching out to find an emotional connection with someone who cares. The movie is intermittently narrated by the character at the center of the story: Margo Crane, who is 15 when this story takes place in 1977, but the narration is of an older Margo looking back on this period of time in her life.

Margo at age 15 lives with her divorced father Bernard Crane (played by Tatanka Means) in the fictional rural town of Murrayville, Michigan. They are both very emotionally wounded by the fact that Bernard’s wife Luanne (Margo’s mother) abruptly left the year before. As Margo explains in the narration, Luanne (played by Lindsay Pulsipher) only left a note saying that she needed to “go find herself” as the reason why she was abandoning them.

Margo also says that she and her father don’t really talk about Luanne leaving, but Margo knows that her father stopped drinking alcohol the day that Margo’s mother left. In Margo and Bernard’s day-to-day existence that’s shown in the movie, Margo and her father have introverted personalities, but she shows occasional signs of teenage rebellion and wanting to be more independent. Bernard can be protective and he will scold Margaret if she goes out in the woods by herself and doesn’t tell him where she is.

Bernard and Margo live next door to Bernard’s white half-brother Cal Murray (played by Coburn Goss), but Cal has a very different lifestyle than Margo and Bernard. As Margo describes it, Cal pretty much runs the town because the Murray family owns a business (which is not named in the movie) that employs many of the town’s residents. Bernard’s job is not specifically mentioned, but it’s implied that he works for the same company in a low-paying, blue-collar position.

Cal has inherited the business from his late father, who was the father of Bernard. It’s implied but never said outright that Cal’s white father was never married to Bernard’s Native American mother (which would explain why Bernard has a different last name), so Bernard and Margo are treated as the “bastard” members of the family. However, when Bernard and Cal’s father was alive, he gave Margo a canoe called The River Rose.

Bernard and Margo live in a cramped and cluttered small home, while Cal and Cal’s wife and children live in a much larger home and can afford to have regular parties at their house. Cal doesn’t see Bernard and Rose as a threat to take over the business, which is why he’s cordial to them. Cal even invites Margo over for hunting target practice with him and Cal’s two teenage sons: hothead Billy (played by Sam Straley) and mild-mannered Junior (played by Arie Thompson).

Cal is impressed with how good Margo is at target practice (she’s a better shooter than Billy and Junior), so he invites Margo to go hunting with them when hunting season starts. Billy, the younger brother, is very jealous that Margo is getting this attention and praise from Cal. Billy grumbles that Margo’s on-target shooting is “beginner’s luck,” and he gets up in her face and tries to be intimidating when he sees that his father might include Margo in family activities that Billy think should be only for Cal’s children.

Margo is never seen in school, and she apparently has no friends. Her relationship with her father is close, but not close enough where they can openly talk about their feelings with each other about how Luann’s abandonment has affected them. And because the Murray family has higher social status in the community than Margo and Bernard, it’s easy to see why Margo would be flattered and willing to go along with whatever Cal wants.

At one of the house parties at Cal’s home, it soon becomes apparent why Cal was paying special attention to Margo. He offers her a drink from his flask of alcohol, and he compliments her by telling her she looks pretty. Cal then tells Margo that he wants to show how to skin a deer, which is a skill he says she’ll need if they go hunting. He takes her inside a shed in the back of the family home. And then, Cal starts kissing Margo, one thing leads to another, and they have sex. Cal asks Margo if she’s a virgin, and she says yes.

One of the female party guests walks near the shed and sees what’s happening. Margo notices that someone has caught them in the act, and Margo puts a stop to what she and Cal were doing. But within a very short period of time (less than two minutes), an angry Bernard comes storming over and gets in a fist fight with Cal, while yelling at Cal to get away from Margo. Word must’ve traveled very fast.

By this time, people at the party have gathered around to witness the fight, including Cal’s wife Joanna (played by Josephine Decker), who has heard that something wrong has happened between Cal and Margo. Cal looks desperately at his wife and immediately says about Margo, “That little slut lured me in there, but nothing happened.” Joanna takes her husband’s side and orders Bernard and Margo to stay away from her family.

Although Margo is not to blame for Cal’s act of incest and statutory rape, she is the one who is shamed for it by the Murray family. When Billy and his friends see her around town, Billy makes derogatory comments about her. And adding to Margo’s humiliation, her father is now on the outs with the Murray family, which could affect him economically in a town run by the Murrays.

Feelings of embarrassment and anger eventually build up to a point where another confrontation happens that changes Margo’s life for the worse. Without giving away too many details, it’s enough to say that she runs away from home and goes on a journey to find her estranged mother. Margo travels by her canoe on the Stark River, with a rifle for protection and hunting, but she gets some help along the way from various people who give her rides by car.

The first person she turns to for help is a man in his late 30s or early 40s named Billy (played by Dominic Bogart), who has been buying the hunted venison that Margo was selling for extra money before she ran away from home. Billy lives with his brother Paul (played by Evan Linder), who is a recovering meth addict. Although Billy has a mild flirtation with Margo and thinks she’s attractive, he doesn’t cross the line by taking advantage of her. Margo’s real named is Margaret, and Billy affectionately calls her Maggie.

While skinning a hunted rabbit in a park, Margo meets a man in his 20s named Will (Ajuawak Kapashesit), who says he’s from the Cherokee tribe and is originally from Oklahoma. He is traveling because he’s going to start a new job teaching a class at an unnamed school. Margo and Will have an almost instant connection and romantic sparks fly between them.

A grouchy old man named Smoke (played by John Ashton) has the biggest impact on Margo, in ways that neither of them expected. Smoke, who used to be a musician, lives alone and has no children. Smoke got his nickname because he’s a heavy smoker.

Margo convinces him to let her temporarily stay in a camper on his property in exchange for her cooking, cleaning, and hunting for their food. She tells Smoke that she’d like to live there until she can get enough money to travel north. Smoke’s closest friend is nicknamed Fishbone (played by Kenn E. Head), a former bandmate who stops by to visit and sells cigarettes to Smoke. Fishbone is not as curmudgeonly as Smoke, but he has varying degrees of reactions in how involved he wants to get in Margo’s problems.

And she definitely has problems that happen before and after she runs away from home. There are some close calls where it looks like she could be caught and put in the custody of child protective services. And in the midst of being homeless for a good deal of the story, Margo also has to be her own private detective to try to find her mother. It’s not an easy task, since her mother moves around a lot, and this is 1977, before Internet searches were possible. And then, more tragedy strikes.

Despite all the problems that pile on Margo, “Once Upon a River” never reduces her to a pitiful stereotype. She experiences some subtle and not-so-subtle racism, but her journey is mainly dangerous and devastating because she’s an underage girl on her own for most of the story. Margo has to grow up fast, but there many moments that remind viewers that she’s still a child who needs love, guidance and role models she can trust.

A great deal of “Once Upon a River” is about family (either biological or chosen) and looking for a place to belong. Writer/director Rose keeps the tone of the movie as realistic as possible, but some viewers might wonder why Margo never has any female allies in this story while she’s looking for her mother. Is it just an unexplained coincidence or is it because has Margo’s abandonment issues with her mother and therefore doesn’t seem to trust other females? We’ll never know.

What is very apparent though is that DelaCerna gives an absolutely riveting performance that skillfully expresses all the emotions and insecurities of a girl who’s on the cusp of womanhood and dealing with some very difficult issues. Thanks to the nuanced direction of Rose and the excellent cinematography of Charlotte Hornsby, “Once Upon a River” has an impactful way of contrasting Margo’s gritty homeless life with the beauty of the woods and river where she hides. It’s an apt metaphor for someone who’s trying to run away from her problems but is on a journey of finding herself and discovering what kind of person she’s capable of being.

Film Movement released “Once Upon a River” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on October 2, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix