Thursday, November 14, 2019

Movie Review: Waves

Waves **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults.
Written by: Trey Edward Shults.
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Tyler), Taylor Russell (Emily), Lucas Hedges (Luke), Sterling K. Brown (Ronald), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Catherine), Alexa Demie (Alexis), Clifton Collins Jr. (Bobby), Neal Huff (Bill).
Waves is a film about love and death and family. About guilt and redemption. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to go big – to be a giant, messy film that amps up the emotions, and the music, to 11 and just go for it. It’s a film that reminds me of some of John Cassavetes work – like say Love Streams – or Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It goes for that level of pain and heartbreak. It is a major step forward for writer/director Trey Edward Shults, whose two previous films Krisha and It Comes at Night, also focused on a family in intense times – but this one takes it to a completely different level.
The film is basically split into two parts. The first part focuses on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr. – proving once again, after Luce, that he’s one of the best young actors in the world). Tyler is a star high school wrestler – the son of another wrestler, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) – who has made a success of himself, and pushes his son to do the same. This comes out in destructive ways – like when his shoulder pain turns out not to be a minor issue, but something serious – requiring surgery, and probably means he will never wrestle again. Tyler, who is 18, hides this from his parents – and keeps wrestling – with bad results. Things get even worse when his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) tells him she’s pregnant – and after some back and forth, decides she wants to keep the baby. To say Tyler handles it poorly would be an understatement – as this half of the movie hurtles toward a tragic conclusion. The second half of the film focuses on Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell) and how she navigates the aftermath of what happened in the first. Her family is falling apart, she is ostracized at school, etc. Then she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges) – and the pair fall in love, the kind of sweet teenage love with caught a glimpse of in the first half of the film between Tyler and Alexis, before it all falls apart. There is death and tragedy in the second part though – but a different kind, in a different register.
The film opens with a literally dizzying shot – shot from inside a car, the camera rotates around and around, watching Tyler and his friends as the cruise through the streets. You almost get the sense that something bad is going to happen – but it doesn’t here. Propelled by the music, it’s really a freeing moment in the film – showing these kids letting loose. A lot will happen in cars in the film – often set to music, which is the backbone of the film (not just the song choices, but the typically wonderful work by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on the score) – but it won’t always be so freeing. It’s in a car, where things come to a head between Tyler and Alexi, it’s in a car where Tyler will go out of the house drunk, on the night he makes one horrible decision after another, it’s in a car where Emily and Luke will go on their sweet dates – and later on a road trip to see a figure from Luke’s past. The cars take them everywhere – good and bad.
The film is one with the emotions dialed way up – and the style matches that. The work by cinematographer Drew Daniels is magnificent – it glides through these people and their lives – the colors are deep and saturated. He plays with aspect ratio as well – the screen becomes narrower as Tyler’s world collapses around him. The colors change as well – there is a gentler, softer color in the second half of the film that befits the relationship we see at play there.
The film is about the mistakes we make – and the consequences of those mistakes. Some of the mistakes are obvious – like Tyler’s – and some are less so, like the ones his father makes. They all have an impact though – and those impacts reverberate among those closest to us. It is about learning to forgive – and having the ability to move on. This doesn’t undo those mistakes – you still have to pay for them, as Tyler will have to do, and how his father has to in a different way. But it’s up to us how we about doing that.
It’s also just an emotionally powerful – and emotionally exhausting film. All of Shults stylistic tricks work here – he isn’t doing them just to show off, but to deepen the emotions. And part of that is due to the performances – all of which hit the right notes. Harrison Jr. is a star – and Hollywood will surely realize that soon. Taylor Russell has a less showy role – it’s a quieter performance, as Emily as a quieter more internal character – but it’s just as good. We expect good work from the likes of Lucas Hedges, Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry- and none of them disappoint.
Waves is an example of the type of film I love – the type in watch a promising filmmaker finally makes good on that promise. Both Krisha and It Comes at Night were very good films – but you see a great filmmaker in there, honing their craft. In Waves, it all comes crashing out of Shults – and results in one of the year’s best films.

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