Gorgeous and haunting, inscrutable but rewarding of scrutiny, writer/director M. Blash's The Wait achieves the rare distinction of being warm and unsettling at the same time, framing grief drama, a grown-love story and the possibility of reality-bending magic in a prickly narrative given to reveries and freak-outs. It's the kind of movie in which mopey characters slump in the middle of exquisitely composed shots, staring hard at something grand or confounding just beyond the camera. As with Prince Avalanche, this is a nervy, lyric indie set in forest-fire country; in The Wait, the woods are still burning.
Sometimes Blash shows us what the characters are regarding: firefighters' airplanes dumping retardant over an Oregon forest, a fetching young woman adjusting her bathing suit by a country-club pool, the pink dust of that retardant rising like steam as it's hosed off a horse.
And sometimes Blash leaves it to us to construct our own meaning—even our own incidents, as in the moment when miserable Angela (Jena Malone) is puttering about in a golf cart driven by hunky Ben (Luke Grimes), the boy whose affections might help tip her back into a life less dead-eyed. “I wish you could have met her,” she says, referring to her mother, who died in the film's disorienting first scenes.
“What was she like?” he asks, five heartbeats later.
She says nothing, and in one long, single shot, he drives around a couple of bends, nods to another golf cart and, 15 seconds of silence later, points to the magic-hour sun, which is now flaring against the camera lens. “Like that?” he asks.
For better or worse, that's what much of the movie feels like—the director showing you visions worth looking at, and then asking, “Like that?”
“Like what?” you may ask, as Emma, played by Chloë Sevigny, takes a canoe ride past architecturally ambitious lakeshore homes and Owen Pallett's score trills with a scalding, synth-sounding tribute to the sound of last century's modems making a dial-up connection. Could that hint of the pervasive invasiveness of information technology deepen the earlier moment when Emma's son (Devon Gearhart) shows a friend's dad a viral video of a young woman getting hit by a train—and then shows it again and again? Such scenes dig at an everyday horror we've mostly come to accept in our lives, and both of those (plus a handful of others, including one first-rate jump scare) prove more upsetting than most bona-fide horror films.
The Wait does have a story. As her mother dies in quick, well-acted scenes, Emma takes a phone call from a strange woman who seems to know what's happening—and who promises, vaguely, “they will return.” Already harrowed by the loss of her mother, Emma takes this to be a sign that she and Angela should let the death go unreported for a few days. She prefers to leave the body in the bedroom, just in case. Angela, of course, considers this mad, and the sisters' first blowouts on the subject boast prove bruising. They're powerfully performed, as is a slow-building beauty of a scene in which the women make up by dancing to the Cure. One sister is clinging to an impossible hope; the other is embarrassed for them both and coping with her own secrets.
Just what is going on is kept from Emma's kids, an elementary-age girl (Lana Green) who gets treated (by a glazed-over Emma) to the videotape of her own birth and a teen-ish boy who, like all the men here, spends a lot of time watching other people do things. We see him half-stalk an athletic girl and brusquely tell a male friend he's not really into whatever boy-meets-boy experimentation they've recently shared. Angela, meanwhile, strikes up a flirtation with the young hunk in the golf cart, which for a healthy chunk of the film inspires them to do the same thing all the other principles do: quizzically wander through woods and mountains and glorious ski-lodge-inspired homes.
There are lots of other things happening, too, almost all of them incidentally interesting, some mysteriously affecting. But too many of these moments of beauty and strangeness feel like musical notes that, while well-played, never collect into anything like a chord. The pained, textured performances of Sevigny and Malone enrich their scenes, but when it ranges away from its leads, The Wait can seem like an anthology of moments rather than a narrative whole, although those moments do accumulate into a mood of chilly, gently surreal isolation. At times, the discursiveness seems to be Blash's subject. Many of those moments feature characters wondering what to make of the things they're looking at—little dramas replicating the experience of watching The Wait itself.