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CCFF 2023: The Unknown Country & Waiting for the Light to Change

May 23, 2023


There were two films that screened at the recent Chicago Critics Film Festival (CCFF) that felt like they were cut from the same cloth. Both “The Unknown Country” and “Waiting for the Light to Change” were made by female filmmakers and both films revolve around young female characters on their own personal journey, external and/or internal. By combining stunning pastoral visuals and an overall naturalistic and lyrical style, both in performances and mise-en-scène, these two independent films offer a distinctive viewing experience.

Like the protagonists in their respective stories, each of these films are on their own journey. “The Unknown Country” premiered over a year ago at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and is still currently working the festival circuit. Hopefully a release date will be announced soon. “Waiting for the Light to Change” made its premiere earlier this year at the Slamdance Film Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Film) and is still appearing at different festivals. It will be screened this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center as part of the Asian American Showcase.

Below are my thoughts on both of these films…




(85 min.)


Director Morrisa Maltz’s feature opens with her protagonist leaving her Minnesota residence late at night, seemingly in a hurry as she peels off in her well-worn white Cadillac. There are no details given, only the sounds of local talk radio as this quiet character makes her way through a cold, snow-covered landscape. Maltz gives viewers time to align themselves with the patient pacing of the story that has started as we begin to learn who this is and what is happening.

Eventually we learn that we are following Tana (Lily Gladstone), a young Native American woman who is on a cross-country trip to the Texas/Mexico border to meet up with her Oglala Lakota family after the recent death of her grandmother. It’s not clear if she was close to her grandmother, but it doesn’t matter since we gradually gather that this is a needed sojourn for Tana. It feels like she is at a point in her life where time alone, for potential (or unintentional) self-discovery, is needed, and maybe a reconnection with her roots as well.

As we follow Tana south, Maltz introduces ancillary strangers around her wind up becoming important to the travel experience in relatable ways. When Tana stops at a empty gas station, she is the only woman there and has a feeling like she’s being watched closely by one sole male pumping gas nearby. Maybe it’s nothing or maybe this guy’s the kind of creep you learn about later on after news of an abduction. It’s the kind of thing that can go through the mind of any women traveling solo and likely the kind of thing that Maltz herself has experienced, considering the Texan native stated in recent interviews that much of the story here is influenced by her own solo road trips. But the overall story is one that has resulted from collaboration – considering Maltz wrote the screenplay from a story by Gladstone, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux, and Vanara Taing – so there are no doubt some real-life influences throughout.

Maltz and cinematographer Andrew Hajek often drift around Tana’s surroundings, observing the characters she encounters on her road trip. Sometimes the camera follows these characters in way similar to Linklater or Altman. Like Florence R. Perrin, who plays a friendly real-life diner waitress (named Flo) in Deadwood, South Dakota. While we meet her as she serves Tana and then other diner patrons, we also wind up at her cat-filled home where her voiceover contemplates on her life. Later on, Tana encounters friends she hasn’t seen in a while. a couple of whom are about to get married in an Oglala Lakota ceremony. It would be safe to assume that many of these are non-actors and are likely playing characters that are very true to who they are in real life.

Once Tana arrives in the Lone Star state, we continue to meet others she encounters for the first time or reunites with, continuing the film’s vérité approach. There’s the genial middle-aged gas station attendant, whom we learn later on from his own voiceover how he met the man he lives with. As she travels through Dallas, Tana she has a flirtatious encounter with Isaac (Raymond Lee) one evening, when she spends time with him and his friends. These random encounters confirm that there are still decent people in the world and balance out all the other suspicious characters.

Maltz is purposely taking us on a tour with “The Unknown Country”, through the heartland of America (what’s considered as flyover country) to offer a sense of significance to the people and places that Tana visits. Throughout the film, there is a subtle, contemplative score from Samuel Jones and Alexis Marsh, but there’s also the cosmic noise on the fringe that comes from Tana’s car radio, confirming we are in the era of Trump. This choice definitely adds an atmospheric context that feels important to the perspective of

As with her previous performances (notably in Kelly Reichardt’s “Certain Women”), Gladstone has a mesmerizing way in which she presents reserved albeit nuanced characters to the audience. That’s on display here, but there’s also a certain comfortability she has here, as a character and performer, that translates well to the screen. More will no doubt be written about her when she shows up later this year in Martin Scorsese’s anticipated, “Killers of the Flower Moon”. This film is unlikely to get that kind of recognition, but it definitely deserves an audience.





(89 min.)


“Waiting for the Light to Change” found me reflecting on that period after college when you and your twentysomething friends are trying to figure out life. It’s likely that you or your friends felt a little out of place or left behind and, at the time, that resulting in feelings of being stuck or lost, and it almost seemed like there were no answers. Just thinking about all that makes me want to send a message back to my past self to just “hang in there”.

The young characters in director Linh Tran’s strong directorial debut are at that age and can often be found contemplating their lives with each other and often times can be seen just being present alongside each other.

The five characters we follow are spending an early spring weekend getaway at a lake house in Michigan, two of them have been friends since high school, while the others are new acquaintances. This isn’t the idyllic time to take in the environment since it’s still predominately cold and windy with overcast skies, so there will be no swimming or boating in the lake. The nearby small town isn’t necessarily bustling with opportunities for activities either. None of that seems to matter for this group as they wind up making the most of it, whether huddled up indoors or meander around the lakeshore or nearby lighthouse. Within this specific setting, Tran has created an atmosphere ripe for her characters to explore what is occurring internally, such as longing, despair, anxiety, and sadness.

As we spend time with the them, we gradually learn a little more about them. Jay (Sam Straley) and Kim (Joyce Ha) were high school sweethearts and they are excited about hanging out with their friend, Amy (Jin Park), who moved to California and is currently studying for her masters. Kim isn’t alone though, having brought along Lin (Qun Chi), her cousin from China, someone she hasn’t seen in ten years. Jay also invites his stepbrother, Alex (Erik Barrientos), who develops an attraction to Amy. We eventually learn that there is a simmering tension between Jay, Kim, and Amy, that spawns from the shared history they have.

Back in high school, Amy had a huge crush on Jay, but never did anything about it due to her insecurities regarding her appearance. Since then, she has lost a significant amount of weight (which Kim often comments on) and she’s more confident and she now finds that the feelings she had for Jay never truly went away, which causes complications between the three of them.

While the story sounds like the kind of love triangle we’ve seen countless times, the way in which Tran goes about telling the story is much more genuine and relatable than the clichés we usually associate with such a narrative. The difference here can be seen in the decisions Tran and cinematographer David Foy make, such as the use of wide shots and long takes, offering a sense of place for these characters to exist and develop. Moving is just as important to Tran (a local filmmaker with an MFA from DePaul University) as placement, which finds deliberate shot construction playing an integral part in how the story is told here. All of this accentuates the tone of the story and the mood of the characters, especially the awkwardness and uncertainty they often find themselves experiencing.

The screenplay written by Tran, Jewells Santos, and Delia Van Praag, is careful to present each character with room to be fully-realized by the actors. Each and every character has something internal that surfaces during their time together. Feelings are questioned, fears and regrets are addressed, and grief is acknowledged, all of which are emphasized by their isolated setting. The film unfolds in such a personal manner, it feels like the writers here are drawing from their own experiences.

As mentioned above, this uncertain time for these characters is something any viewer can connect with and how its played out on the screen is most impressive for a directorial debut. The most relatable aspect of Tran’s film is that no one has any real answers and that’s okay…in fact, viewers know this.

RATING: ***1/2



Director Linh Tran and producer James Choi are scheduled to attend the screening on Thursday, May 25th at the Gene Siskel Film Center. For ticket info, click here. 


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