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Waves

****
2019

‘…a sprawling but tightly conceived film that… successfully finds its own intense voice…’

“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.

Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.

Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.

A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, the Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.

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  1. I really wanted to like this, but it didn’t quite work for me. I felt it dragged, and the soundtrack began to grate. But more fundamentally I never felt empathy for Tyler. Though I could see he was burdened by a pressure to succeed, from himself and his father, I just saw him as angry, resentful and thuggish long before the defining violent scene, and the film seemed to reinforce a damaging stereotype which I found uncomfortable. That said, I was impressed by the bold bipartite structure, almost like watching two different films. Taylor Russell was very good. And the cinematography was lovely.

    • I can see the weaknesses; for unknown reasons, I was carried along by this and felt empathy with the young man’s pressure-cooker existence. I feel that the kind of pressure put on scholarship athletes as children is an unwarranted societal force, and, like you, was not surprised when things turned violent. I’d rather the last part was just a coda, but I think that’s because of the involvement I felt initially. A promising work, at least.

      • I agree the pressure is cruel and very unfair, and there was a message that because he was black he felt he had to do twice as well. Interesting what you said about a coda. I liked the second part, but it felt a little inconsequential by comparison I think because the first part was so intense. I didn’t know about the film’s structure before I watched it, so I thought it was just a coda and was initially confused when it went on for so long. Quite bold for them to do that. As you suggest, it’ll be interesting to see what the director does next.

        • That final third does make a difference; an inevitable dash of pretension. Even while I feel it doesn’t quite chime, it elevated the piece somehow. We’ll know from the director’s next film if this all flatters to decieve ….

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