You can almost feel the salty, humid air stick to your skin watching God’s Waiting Room, a Florida-set indie about thwarted desires, lives in limbo and violent impulses kept tenuously in check. Revolving around the intersecting fates (yes, it’s one of those) of three Tampa dwellers — a fresh-faced ingenue, the hustler who seduces her and an ex-convict readjusting to life on the outside — writer-director Tyler Riggs’ feature debut has a ripe, palpable sense of place and a pair of magnetic leads in Nisalda Gonzalez and Matthew Leone as the young lovers. All that promise and potential make the film’s eventual surrender to narrative cliché and thematic overreach all the more frustrating.
There’s indeed a taut, tensely intimate little drama here, waiting to be chiseled out from the extraneous plotting and thesis-positing. Those flaws stem primarily from the character of Brandon (played by Riggs himself), the recovering criminal whose storyline feels airdropped in from another — albeit not uninteresting — movie altogether. His lurching trajectory collides with that of the central couple in a third-act contrivance that breaks the film’s languorous spell. Meanwhile, an attempt to impose some greater cosmic meaning on the story via Brandon’s drawling, fortune-cookie-philosophical voiceover is a glaring rookie mistake — a lack of trust in the movie’s images to speak for themselves.
God’s Waiting Room
A vivid debut that makes some rookie mistakes.
That’s a shame, since those images are vibrant and evocative. The Sunshine State, with its boldly colored natural beauty and blindingly sun-baked, strip-mall ugliness in often jarring proximity, has occupied a particular space in American independent cinema: Films from Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise and Kelly Reichardt’s River of Grass to Spring Breakers, Moonlight, The Florida Project, The Beach Bum and Waves (as well as the upcoming Zola) tell tales of ecstasy and struggle, romantic rapture and seedy criminality, befitting a land of extremes and incongruities. God’s Waiting Room, too, captures that coexistence of lushness and grime, the juxtaposition between the poetry of the state’s scenery — softly lapping aquamarine waters, palms tilting in the breeze — and the prosaic tackiness of much of its urban and suburban sprawl.
Though Riggs’ lyrical-neo-realist visual approach is familiar, the whiff of stylistic déjà-vu — of derivativeness or indebtedness — so common among directorial bows at fests like Tribeca (and Sundance and SXSW and…) is never overpowering. The usual influences are there, but the filmmaker conjures mood without drifting into Malickian mannerisms, tracks his subjects’ movements without over-reliance on handheld, Dardennes-style stalking and makes purposeful use of facial close-ups without leaving us pining for Barry Jenkins. God’s Waiting Room looks sharp, even as it goes careening off the rails.
Aspiring singer-songwriter Rosie (Gonzalez), just out of high school, lives at home with her protective Spanish-speaking dad (Ray Benitez), a construction worker. A believably adolescent blend of sweet and sullen, she spends most of her time strumming on her guitar or shooting the shit with besties Natty (Michelle Nunez) and Leigh (Leah Maxwell).
Rosie’s sleepy summer routine gets a shake-up when she starts hanging with Jules (Leone), a slightly older drug dealer from New York. Her friends disapprove — Leigh uncharitably deems him a “gross little New York pizza rat” — but, with brash charm and hints of genuine ardor and winking self-awareness beneath his lothario shtick, Jules chips away at Rosie’s defenses.
While there’s nothing new in the film’s good-girl-meets-bad-boy-cue-heartbreak template, the scenes of Rosie and Jules together shimmer with sensuality and an organic-feeling flirtatiousness. Jules may be a clown, but he’s an irresistible one; when Rosie rebuffs him, he keeps cracking jokes and doling out compliments, winning her over through the force of his personality and the single-minded focus of his attentions.
Leone, with his bleach-blond buzzcut, scruffy dark features and gym-toned physique, makes a magnetically sleazy cad. The performance also grows more interesting as the movie progresses, the actor hinting at currents of self-loathing and insecurity raging just below the surface swagger. There’s a predatory streak in Jules, a slithering duplicitousness, but also a gnawing hunger for connection. Thanks to Leone, the character feels dangerous in complex, specific ways. Gonzalez, too, is a compelling presence, both vulnerable and steely, and the actress hits poignant notes of curiosity, yearning and pride.
The two pull us close and keep us guessing, as does Benitez as Nino, Rosie’s loving but controlling father; their relationship is drawn in bracingly unsentimental strokes, while Nino’s interactions with Jules have a gripping, slow-boil tension. Chris Dudley’s dreamy score enhances the sense of stagnant lives being stirred and shifted.
That would have been enough, but God’s Waiting Room muddies its main story with the scenes of Brandon navigating post-carceral life. We see him moving in with an elderly relative, meeting with his parole officer, working as a pool cleaner for a woman whose sexual advances trigger his PTSD — material that might have made its own fine film (Riggs has a haunted, febrile intensity) but isn’t pertinently interwoven here. Rather than digging into the meat and potatoes of his movie — a young woman emancipating herself from the domineering men in her life — the filmmaker serves up dubious platitudes about pre-determined destinies and the powerlessness of individuals to transcend their circumstances.
The film’s title is a tongue-in-cheek nickname for Florida alluding to its high proportion of senior citizens. Given that none of the characters in God’s Waiting Room is close to that age, it’s a particularly sardonic distillation of how the writer-director views his home state: more as a purgatory than a paradise.