Generation Z Has Its Quarter-Life Crisis in Waiting for the Light to Change

Movies Reviews linh tran
Generation Z Has Its Quarter-Life Crisis in Waiting for the Light to Change

“I still feel like a kid. I’m 25 and I haven’t done shit… feels like I’m wasting my entire life.”

If you’ve had the extraordinary privilege of being a Gen Z’er who entered their early 20s amidst the soul-crushing pandemic, there’s a good chance that you or someone in your immediate circle of friends has echoed this very sentiment at some point in the last three years. If these words have ever left your mouth—or if you’re prone to bouts of melancholy and struggle with finding a sense of direction in life—you probably have a lot in common with the young protagonists at the center of Linh Tran’s slow-burning feature debut, Waiting for the Light to Change

In Waiting for the Light to Change, Amy (Jin Park) is an aimless 25-year-old with no clear sense of purpose. Lin (Qun Chi) is a newly single international student still very much in love with her ex. Jay (Sam Straley) is a recently unemployed cook grappling with the loss of his father. Kim (Joyce Ha) is an outwardly successful young woman with a cute boyfriend and promising career. And Alex (Erik Barrientos) is the friend with a man-bun and seemingly never-ending supply of marijuana. When these five characters—some combination of relatives, lovers, school friends, and complete strangers to each other—come together for a week-long getaway at a scenic Michigan lake house, they find themselves dealing with the difficulties that seem to haunt one’s early-to-mid 20s: Mourning the naïve childhood expectations of adulthood, finding a fulfilling career, harping over the things you should have done differently and experiencing unhealthy amounts of anxiety around what the future might hold. 

Of the film’s many striking elements, including its remarkably slow pace and pastel-colored cinematography, what leaves the biggest impression is Tran’s poetic use of setting to establish Waiting for the Light to Change’s somber tone and typify the internal struggles of her subjects. It’s the conclusion of a cold midwestern winter and the lakeside home in which the group inhabits has chilled over with a quiet sense of dread. The gloomy weather has sent other vacationers home. The off-season offers virtually no recreational fun to be had, and the beautiful blue waters that surround the property are much too cold to touch, let alone swim in. There’s just so much they can’t do in this weather, so they resort to taking drugs, dwelling on past regrets and having depressing conversations along the chilly shore.

In Waiting for the Light to Change, a setting that would otherwise be brimming with opportunity and excitement in the warm summer months instead becomes a place of limitation, a constant reminder that there is warmth to be felt, success to be had, laughter to be shared…just not for you. Not in this season. Here, the quarter-life crisis manifests in the freezing lake house: A physical representation of what it feels like to watch your youth and future slip just beyond your reach. It’s isolation. It’s wasted potential. It’s waiting for a brighter season that feels like it’ll never arrive. 

These existential themes are captured with verisimilitude, constructed by the debut filmmaker’s assured direction. Ninety-nine percent of Waiting for the Light to Change plays out in mid to full shots, with minimal camera movement and virtually no establishing coverage. Instead of shooting the characters’ conversations using a conventional shot-reverse-shot technique, Tran simply sets the camera in front of her cast and lets entire scenes play out in single static shots. The result feels like something in between a documentary and footage captured illegally on hidden Airbnb cameras. You feel as if you’ve stepped into a situation that could very well be reality. 

That said, Tran’s decision to do away with close-ups for the majority of the film creates a sense of distance, both literally and emotionally. The eyes are the window to the soul, as the saying goes, and when we cannot see those eyes, it becomes harder to read the nuances of the performances and form deeper understandings of the characters. Although the shooting style enhances the realism, the characters often struggle to reach the point of complete personhood. This shortcoming goes beyond direction, and can occasionally be felt on a narrative level.

While the five are regularly engaging in discussions that reveal small bits and pieces of their personal thoughts and struggles, the script (co-written by Tran, Jewells Santos and Delia Van Praag) intentionally leaves major details left unsaid. We never know what sort of hopes and dreams, if any, Amy has for the future, or what sort of issues are troubling Kim’s and Jay’s relationship, or pretty much anything about Alex, for that matter. The omission of these details is presumably meant to make the characters appear more universal, but the outcome is generic rather than relatable. 

Without a strong sense of individuality, the characters, with some exception to Amy, don’t feel fully fleshed out and, thus, become reduced to Generation Z archetypes. I myself am a struggling, occasionally lonely 25-year-old with a Twitter account. I know we’re all experiencing quarter-life crises—and it’s nice to have that acknowledged—but I wish to explore beyond that, to understand what drives these characters. What makes them individuals? What, beyond stylish direction, makes them real?

Though it feels like it was written to be a character study, Waiting for the Light to Change doesn’t ever dig deep enough into its characters’ psyches to achieve that goal. Instead, its success lies in its use of tone and setting to create a mood piece that bottles feelings of angst and uncertainty. To capture the spirit of a generation in existential peril in your feature debut is a victory in itself. Even when its characters feel too distant and mysterious for complete identification, this feat is what makes Waiting for the Light to Change worth watching.

Director: Linh Tran
Writer: Linh Tran, Jewells Santos, Delia Van Praag
Starring: Jin Park, Joyce Ha, Quan Chi, Sam Straley, Erik Barrientos
Release Date: October 20, 2023

Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic, and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste Magazine, Film Cred, or Kathymichellechacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry, or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.

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