You make one little decision and the repercussions hit you like a wave. Boom! You’re knocked out of your cozy footing and swept away into a new reality. There’s a swirl of excitement and terror as you desperately stretch to find your bearings or snatch a breath of air. Maybe you wish you could go back to before, make a new choice, take a new path. All of this is what the trippy sci-fi thriller The Wave is about.
Written by Carl W. Lucas and directed by Gille Klabin, The Wave begins with a nebbish lawyer named Frank (Justin Long) who is trapped in small office, a loveless marriage, and a life of crushing predictability. But all of that is about to change. You see, Frank has found a path to promotion, wealth, and thereby — maybe — happiness. But before a pivotal conference meeting, he decides to cut loose and so forever changes his fate. His buddy, Jeff (Donald Faison), urges him to go out drinking on a weekday, and this minor deviation leads to another. Married, Frank flirts with a mysterious and exciting woman (Sheila Vand). Straight-laced, Frank follows her to a raging house party where he takes a hallucinogenic drug. The sketchy dealer warns it’ll hit him like a wave. Then, boom, it’s the next morning. Frank is alone in a house that is abandoned and trashed. He doesn’t know what’s happened in his lost hours; all he knows is he needs to get to the office.
A change of clothes and a cup of coffee won’t set the world right. Frank is still tripping hard. His big meeting with his bosses unfurls like a hellish nightmare, where execs become cackling ghouls whose skins crawl with eerie textures and jarring spikes of color. He seeks the drug dealer to make this stop but only digs himself into deeper troubles. Time keeps on skipping. Each time he jolts awake, Frank is in a freshly alarming predicament, such as being screamed at by his wife, chuckled at by a mirthful homeless man, or chased by a trigger-happy kingpin. Frank believes if he can find the girl from the evening prior, she will provide him the missing pieces. But ultimately he must give in to the flow of the wave.
This is a supremely slick sci-fi adventure. Lucas’s story begins with a mild-mannered Everyman who is on the brink of a big moment and possibly a big mistake. Then it pitches him into a wild rabbit-hole of drug trips, time-travel and philosophy that bends the minds of viewers along with Frank’s. Klabin brings this twisted journey to life with blaring colors, surreal visual effects, and a savage whimsy. Through pulsing shots, slo-motion mayhem, and a frenetic pacing, he gives us a world enchanting and overwhelming. All of this keeps the audience off-balance like the harried hero we’re following. As such, we are desperately bound to Frank, trying to make sense of this wild new world and its rules, much as he does. Watching The Wave feels like solving a puzzle, and Long is our perfect partner.
Gone is the snark that’s long been common to Long’s persona. Far from an aloof slacker, Frank is an anxiety-ridden try-hard who is desperate to break free of his rut, yet terrified to try. He’s also deeply entrenched in self-loathing, recounting to his mystery date how his law degree isn’t being used to fight for justice but to aid big corporations in squeezing blood money out of the middle class too naïve to realize they’re prey. In this moment, Long burns with the fury of stymied rebellion. It’s not just a speech to seem smart at a bar; it’s a confession that dares to unleash a passion long repressed. Throughout the rest of the film this passion explodes in energetic bursts of action and slapstick as Frank leaps from one setting to another, playing tripping detective in a world both vicious and merciful.
Along the way, Long is supported by an ensemble that crackles with electric charisma. Faison, of Scrubs fame, is a superb sidekick, bubbling with one-liners and wide-eyed reactions to the madness that envelops them. Katia Winter brings a righteous side-eye as a conscripted third wheel, while Sheila Vand brings a breathless cool as the smirking dream girl. Sarah Minnich offers cracking wrath as Frank’s over-it wife. Tommy Flanagan brings “The Dude Abides” energy with a hint of The Matrix mysticism as the dealer known as Aeolus, and Bill Sage relishes in greed and douchebaggery as Frank’s bottom line-obsessed boss. All together, the cast sparks with the spirit of this sharp script and its dizzying execution.
Ultimately, The Wave feels like a fresh, fun, and funky episode of The Twilight Zone. It revels in its mystery and rollicks through its plot while offering colorful characters, unpredictable reveals, and retina-scratching visuals. Its only sin is that it’s a bit thin. There’s nothing beyond Frank’s plot. However, briskly placed with plenty of style, The Wave hits hard and offers a solidly thrilling ride.
The Wave is now in select theaters and on VOD.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com