The first person to ever trip on acid wasn’t even aware of what it could do. Albert Hoffman was a Swiss chemist working to create a stimulant for the respiratory and circulatory systems, and he synthesized a drug called lysergic acid diethylamide. On April 19, 1943, Hoffman ingested 0.25 milligrams of what we now call LSD. With another mixture, this amount could have been irrelevant. But the LSD changed Hoffman’s life.
Hoffman rode his bicycle home from work, but by the time he arrived, he could tell his mental state was changing. While he was at first convinced he had poisoned himself, he later began to enjoy the experience, visualizing strange colors and beautiful shapes.
It’s an experience that Frank (Justin Long), the lead character in Gille Klabin’s 2019 movie The Wave, wishes he had. Written by Carl Lucas, The Wave is a fascinating sci-fi exploration of psychedelia, and even if Frank’s trip doesn’t go quite like he planned, he still gets exactly what he needs.
Frank is a lawyer at an insurance company and a pretty good one at that. He just scored a major coup for his employer, looking through the details of a recently deceased firefighter’s case and finding a loophole to deny a claim that would cost the company millions. This firefighter had a heart condition and was taking medication for it, but bad side effects made him quit. In the insurance company’s eyes, he might as well have committed suicide.
In 2020, Klabin told Interlocutor the story “is actually based on the writer/producer Carl’s real life cousin,” who died and had their life insurance policy rejected. Klabin described the movie as “partially a vengeful fantasy of the universe fixing a moral wrong, but it was also an attempt to humanize and understand the person simply doing their job well.”
Despite winning over his fellow lawyer Jeff (Donald Faison) and being in line to score points with his boss, Frank’s life seems empty. His wife, Cheryl (Sarah Minnich), hates his guts. So he throws caution to the wind and goes out with Jeff the night before his big meeting with the boss.
Jeff leads to drinks, which leads to meeting Natalie (Katia Winter) and Theresa (played by both Jocelyn Montoya and Sheila Vand). Jeff is instantly smitten with Theresa, who calls him out when he tries to defend his job. She accuses him of not believing a word he’s saying, to which Jeff responds that he doesn’t believe she cares. It’s a fun, flirty scene, hampered only by Jeff’s inability to get away from his wife’s phone calls.
The four make their way to a house party, then quickly become two as Jeff and Natalie get lost in the shuffle. Frank and Theresa start having fun on their own, but Frank is cautious about trying drugs until he meets Aeolus (Tommy Flannagan).
Aeolus calls to mind the now-retired beer pitchman, The Most Interesting Man in The World. Women surround him, he dresses in elaborate coats, and he has the best drugs. He offers Frank a bump of cocaine that makes him feel wonderful, and when the chance comes to take a drug that’s ingested through the tip of someone else’s tongue he jumps at the chance to make out with Theresa. But before he can really enjoy the high, the drug hits him just like Aeolus promises it would: like a wave.
Frank suddenly finds himself alone and without his wallet. The party is over and he’s covered in trash. Theresa isn’t around. No one at all is around. His phone is dead and he has no idea what neighborhood he’s in. With his big meeting in only a couple of hours, Frank panics and races to beat the clock while also justifying himself to his wife.
Frank eventually makes it to the office, where he gets to reveal his big plan for denying a firefighter’s family life insurance. But this drug is making time act weird. He keeps jumping from one location to another, and phone calls with a furious Cheryl confirm that all his money is somehow gone.
Trying to figure out why his life is suddenly falling apart, Frank reconnects with Jeff and Natalie. The three set about trying to figure out what Frank has taken, which leads them to a drug dealer. But Frank’s reaction to the drug is only increasing, and he keeps jumping in and out of time. The drug dealer doesn’t like this, and things only get weirder from there.
It’s effectively confusing, but what really makes these sudden changes work is Klabin and VFX supervisor Patrick Lawler’s wonderful visual portrayal of a trip. Not quite cartoony, they show human emotions slowed down and sped up, heightened and damped, as colors bulge and burst out of every corner. Klabin credits working on “decades of low budget music videos” for pulling off the movie’s unique look.
The Wave asks some fascinating questions about drugs and life. Can a trip change how you see everything? Should you blow up your entire life just because things made more sense on drugs? Even if it sags a little in the machinations of the plot, the deeper questions and answers keep up with the fast pace. An unusually personal sci-fi movie asking how willing people are to change their lives, The Wave punches far above its low budget.
The Wave is streaming now on Amazon Prime.