No one’s ever listening.
To be as good as Ben Boyles (Hunter Doohan) is with old radios is to inevitably hypothesize about their use beyond our current capacity of understanding. With extensive research into sound waves and their ability to forever remain present around us no matter when or where they originated, he wondered if he could create a device that would amplify those seemingly inert memories in the air and listen to them as though they were happening right now. And while the possibilities and potential profits of such an invention literally prove limitless—whether altruistically or nefariously—Ben’s ambitions are conversely revealed to be personal instead. Because if he could truly listen to the past, maybe he could discover exactly what happened the night his father mysteriously disappeared.
That’s the motivation writer/director Dylan K. Narang supplies the lead of his latest film Soundwave. Every action Ben takes is one that he believes will bring him closer to the truth of that moment since shoring up the technology is only half the battle. With so many conversations happening simultaneously around the world at every second of every day in the history of mankind, sifting through infinite voices is an impossible endeavor without the necessary details to figure out what’s important and what’s noise. A recording of the person he seeks helps as a skeleton key of sorts to calibrate against, but even that could prove fruitless without a specific date and time—something his current guardian/boss (and his dad’s old friend) Antonio (Mike Beaver) refuses to divulge.
Push past the fact that a disappearance would have been documented and thus a fact Ben could procure very easily (despite being a genius, the script often leaves him prone to looking over the obvious) and past the notion that his dad’s other friend Macy (Vince Nappo) hasn’t told him yet either because maybe the detective would be incriminated in whatever happened. Narang seems less interested in having plot holes than meticulously ensuring his characters follow a specific track to collide when the stakes are highest. Antonio not giving him the date keeps Ben at arm’s length and thus pushes him towards Macy who pays the boy for using the device to help solve crimes. They provide him reasons to keep working and loose ends when he’s done.
The reason for the latter stems from a potential buyer Macy approaches behind Ben’s back. While we do believe the detective is telling the truth when he says the amplifier could save lives, greed for the monetary compensation of such heroics becomes too much to ignore. His associate “John” (Paul Tassone) just so happens to have the ear of someone willing to finance that pursuit—or an unknown yet not unsurprising pursuit of his own. After all, every piece of evidence Ben finds to put someone in prison is a piece of evidence that the perpetrator wants expunged from the record. So just as someone would pay to find it, someone else would probably pay more to keep it hidden. The latter will pay in cash or blood.
Ben’s father therefore becomes relegated to MacGuffin territory as the cat and mouse chase between the boy and “John” from the beginning (we rewind a few days before moving past it upon our return) takes precedence. This shift may not feel smooth considering the effort spent setting up the idea that the people looking out for Ben now may have failed his dad then, but it does make logical sense as far as messaging and theatrics goes. The question about whether we should listen just because we can arrives (even if it’s mostly pushed aside for action) as well as the notion that Ben’s invention is a weapon (figuratively and literally) whose presence keeps those aware of its power locked in the past and unable to move on.
This is less the case with Ben and more with the object of his affection, Katie (Katie Owsley). I wish we spent more time with her and their relationship because so much of it feels rushed despite also being the linchpin to the entire film. It’s so hurried that we aren’t able to appreciate the complex nuance that goes into shifting her initial response of the device being an invasion of privacy to a good thing despite happening the moment she learns it invaded her own. How she responds to the chaos that ensues from being dragged into the life or death situation Ben finds himself can also be blunt and it’s a shame because she’s a necessary mirror for her new friend to acknowledge his own mistakes.
Enough does thankfully come across, however, so we can appreciate what Narang is doing and saying regardless. Some memorable stylistic choices (everything slows down into beautifully composed photographs when Ben puts on his headphones and listens to the past) visually retain our interest when the narrative moves too fast for its own good and the actors effectively breathe life into highly emotive characters. Owsley’s Katie is hurting most from start to finish and thus demands our empathy while Tassone’s “John” is so detached from everyone as this outsider villain that he’s able to entertain in ways that make us despise him yet hope his screen time increases. At opposite ends of the spectrum, they become proof that the good Ben’s machine might provide will never outweigh the bad.