The title may refer to a particularly finicky tonsorial procedure, but “Waves” is also a fitting description for the mood and pace of Polish writer-director Grzegorz Zariczny’s small, beautifully formed debut feature: This study of the tender friendship between two lonely, put-upon hairdressing students moves in soft undulations, charting the everyday ebb and flow of its characters’ inner and interpersonal tensions. Clocking in under 80 minutes, yet sketching a wealth of human and environmental subtleties in its short stay on screen, this unassuming Karlovy Vary competition entry may not immediately turn global distributors’ heads. Further festival platforms and awards, however, would help to establish the universal reach of a story nonetheless steeped in specific, weather-stained local detail.
Though Zariczny’s spare, keenly focused script makes no direct political allusions, it captures with pointed pain and exasperation the plight of many young Poles stymied by international economic recession and governmental conservatism. While many flee to seek work abroad, teenagers Kasia (Katarzyna Kopec) and Ania (Anna Kesek) are tethered — by mutually difficult domestic circumstances, among other factors — to Nowa Huta, a tired-looking outer suburb of Krakow that offers few prospects for their generation. Together, they work as apprentices at an unfashionably middle-aged hair salon on a housing estate, between training sessions at an academy overseen by a tough, seemingly life-soured instructor (Beata Schimscheiner).
Said instructor’s brioche-like bouffant and copious eyeshadow aren’t the only things here that hearken back to the 1960s: Without resorting to twee retro stylings on the filmmaking front, Zariczny’s calm, close observational style nods to the lean humanism of the Eastern European new wave that brought filmmakers like Milos Forman to prominence half a century ago. A skilled documentary director whose short doc “The Whistle” took top honors at Sundance in 2013, Zariczny unsurprisingly prizes first-hand authenticity in his fiction work. He himself completed his high-school education in Nowa Huta, while his two vibrant young leads are not trained actors, but trainee hairdressers from Krakow — with the screenplay workshopped from their exchanges of experience. It’s an approach that lends this slender narrative the weight of conviction: a considered, compelling engagement with lives in the social margins.
Neither Kasia nor Ania evince any clear passion for their vocation; both girls speak of it as a means to end. If their attitudes are alike, however, their capabilities lie cruelly far apart. Kasia has natural flair and aces her various examinations, while the spikier, more tomboyish Ania consistently struggles with essential techniques — with those eponymous, flapper-style finger waves an eternal stumbling block. A patient Kasia helps where she can, though their friendship is built on a more profound kind of support — a shared struggle for self-sufficiency in the face of financial and familial strife. Kasia receives little encouragement from her embittered parents; Ania at least has a kindly guardian in her bedraggled dad (Tomasz Schimscheimer, superb), but there’s a bittersweet undertow of guilt to his parenting, while her estranged mother (Jolanta Olszewska) hovers regretfully on the sidelines. While reserving most of its sympathies for the young, “Waves” poignantly draws an inter-generational picture of social disenfranchisement: If these kids are fighting to pull their lives together, their elders can’t provide many pointers.
Zariczny and cinematographer Weronika Bilska (who also did fine work in “Kamper,” another of this year’s Karlovy Vary premieres) opt throughout for gentle lighting and uncluttered compositions, complemented by the measured cutting of editor Bartek Pietras. This amount of breathing room in the film’s construction permits viewers to fully feel and examine its world: a collection of loveless, functional interiors and tellingly disused community spaces. In particular, an empty children’s playground where the girls regularly hang out is heavy with tacit symbolic suggestion of lives forced too quickly into adult practicalities.
Most carefully of all, however, we scrutinize the already-storied faces of Kopec and Kesec, who share a natural, limber screen chemistry that can’t be attributed simply to their real-life bond. Both prove to be persuasive, expressive performers in their own right, charismatically negotiating the girls’ conflicting states of dejection, fury and fleeting joy. Perhaps they’re more dedicated to hairdressing than their on-screen alter egos; if not, Zariczny and his rather special film have surely opened up a Plan B.