Oscar season is brutal.
I’m not talking about the inevitable hand-wringing over the predictably egregious snubs (though, seriously, where the fuck is Awkwafina?). Rather, I’m talking about the act of covering the season as a critic. From September through the end of the year, the studios bring out the big guns, releasing films week after week which are, if not always good, at least worthy of coverage. I recognize that complaining about having to see and write about highbrow cinema every week is the firstest of first-world problems, but I must confess some relief to be at the end of it. While I obviously love great films, my heart will always belong in the gutter: midnight movies, cult cinema, and no-budget obscurities are my alma mater and my home. So it feels good to take off my belt, relax, and sit down in front of a good old fashioned psychedelic time-travel nightmare comedy.
The Wave stars Justin Long as Frank, a high-powered insurance lawyer about to close the power move of a lifetime by busting a possible scam benefitting the family of a deceased firefighter. To celebrate, coworker Jeff (Donald Faison) invites him out for a night of midweek debauchery. Frank at first demurs, but after taking a long look at the state of his drab, domesticated existence, he cooks up a story for his wife and sneaks out to meet Jeff at a seedy bar. There he locks eyes on freethinking Theresa (Sheila Vand, of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night), who leads the pair to a wild house party. Still decked in his simpering, buttoned-down lawyer clothes and feeling out of place (“They’re wondering why I brought my dad,” Theresa deadpans), Frank seeks out a corner quiet enough to hear himself think. This corner, it turns out, is occupied by dirtbag mystic Aeolus (Tommy Flanagan), who entices Frank to sample a mysterious, unnamed drug.
One cut later and it’s morning, and Frank is alone in the wreckage of the party. With no memory of the ensuing events, no wallet, no explanation for his wife, and a matter of hours before the most important moment of his professional life, Frank needs to find his way back across town and keep his life from spinning out of control. The only problem is, the drug isn’t done with him: Frank finds himself plagued with hallucinations, time jumps, and increasingly cryptic intimations that the universe is trying to tell him something. Eventually, Frank and Jeff find themselves on an odyssey to find Theresa, piece together the previous night, and try to get a handle on whether the entire universe is fraying at the seams.
With his hangdog good looks, Long is perhaps best known as a second-tier rom-com leading man (or perhaps as the Mac to John Hodgman’s PC), but he’s quietly built up a pretty solid genre filmography. His career more or less began with Jeepers Creepers (which would undoubtedly be more fondly remembered if its director weren’t a convicted Creeper himself), and he ably played the straightman in Sam Raimi’s 2009 return to form Drag Me to Hell. In many ways, The Wave plays like a companion piece to that film; beyond both having a striking eye for gonzo visuals, both take as their jumping-off point a casual act of white-collar callousness. Like Alison Lohman’s Christine in Drag, Long’s Frank is an up-and-coming young professional, well-to-do but not comfortably so (he has a bougie house and a 4K TV, but needs to juggle his credit cards to keep them afloat). Both characters rationalize their cruelty as a simple matter of numbers, a me-or-faceless-them that’s just another step up the ladder to respectable adulthood. Unlike in Drag Me to Hell, the ramifications of Frank’s actions aren’t made clear until later in the film, but it’s never far from the edges of his consciousness (however altered it may be), and when it comes home, it comes home hard.
But let’s be honest: the critiques of banal late-stage capitalism, however trenchant, aren’t the reason you’re interested in seeing The Wave. This is a time travel freak-out film, and I’m happy to report that it is more than adequately eye-popping and head-spinning. The hallucinations come seemingly out of nowhere (though figuring out the triggers becomes a fun game in itself), and incorporate a mix of practical effects, low-rent digital trickery, and simple exaggerated performance. In one board meeting, a handyman falls off a ladder in slow motion while Frank’s coworkers slowly devolve into teeth-gnashing monsters and the screen fades into ‘90s music-video saturations– all simple tricks, to be sure, but director Gille Klabin plays it to the hilt, and the cumulative effect is dizzying.
What makes The Wave truly mindbending, however, is its story. This is not simply a series of set pieces, but a puzzle box of a narrative that invites the viewer to piece together what’s going on around the edges during Frank’s missing hours. There is a method to Klabin’s madness, and as the bigger picture begins to come into focus the result is uniquely rewarding. For all his corporate weeniedom, Frank is never less than a likable protagonist, and by the time he reaches his journey’s end, you’ll be rooting for him.
Of course, as is so often the case in low budget film, The Wave is far from perfect. Some of its visual flourishes and clever twists can’t help but feel a little film-schooly, and Klabin’s vision of LA’s seamy underbelly (particularly Ronnie Gene Blevins’ turn as a motormouthed drug dealer) suggests greater familiarity with the films of Quentin Tarantino than anything resembling actual crime. Yet it’s hard to begrudge a film so clearly giddy over its own possibilities. The Wave is a scrappy little head trip with heart and style to spare. It’ll make you think twice the next time you’re offered a strange substance– or maybe think twice about passing it up.
dir. Gille Klabin
Screens Friday 1/17 & Saturday 1/18, 11:59pm @ Coolidge Corner Theatre