New reviews, interviews, and features via RSS or Email.

Sponsored Links


(2019) ** 1/2 R
135 min. A24 Films. Director: Trey Edward Shults. Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges.

/content/films/5189/2.jpgThe new drama Waves goes out on Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color,” giving summative voice to writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ dramatic and stylistic intentions: “This life ain't like it was/Sound and color/I wanna touch a human being/Sound and color/I want to go back to sleep/Sound and color/Ain't life just awfully strange?/I wish I never gave it all away…”

So reliant on music is Waves that it almost plays as a stealth jukebox musical, its needle-drops of Frank Ocean, Animal Collective, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Radiohead playing Greek chorus to the tragic struggles of an upper-middle-class South Floridian family. Shults also has Oscar-winning composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in his corner, providing a pulsing undercurrent of score that evokes the quiet but insistent throbs of heartbeats, blood flow, and intrusive thoughts.

Shults first made a splash with his partly autobiographical indie Krisha, a likewise intense family drama. Not without controversy, Shults explores similar territory with an African-American family. On the surface, 18-year-old Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of Luce) has it all: high-school wrestling stardom, a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie), a steady senior-year party scene and, at his luxurious, well-insulated home, a father (Sterling K. Brown), stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and sister (Taylor Russell).

But Shults immediately creates a sense of unease. In the film’s intense opening montage, even the bliss of a happy-go-lucky couple—smiling, laughing, and kicking it to Animal Collective’s “FloriDada” as Tyler’s expensive car hurtles across a bridge and seemingly endless expanses of blue waves, his and her limbs extending worryingly out the windows—traffics in the threatening energy of reckless youth. In short order, we’re exposed to the daily pressures that weigh on Tyler: a wrestling coach pushing him to “leave everything on the mat and keep it in the circle” and, over and over, to “have a plan”; a teacher pushing students to “seize the day”; routines of running, pumping iron, and enduring insistent lectures from his father: “Gotta work ten times as hard to get anywhere. Ty, I don’t push you because I want to, I push you because I have to.”

Of course, something’s gotta give, an implicit promise telegraphed in every way by Shults (including Dinah Washington’s iconic recording of “What a Diff’rence a Day Makes,” heard twice in the film). Promise fulfilled, Waves reveals its bifurcated structure by handing the protagonist baton to Tyler’s younger sister Emily. The intense pressure, loud sound waves, and baths of color that shape Waves’ first act yield to Emily’s quiet mien of internalized despair and shame at life’s unintended consequences and a family divided by circumstance and grief. Help arrives in the form of introverted-extrovert classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges), who, it turns out, could use a little emotional support of his own.

The searching camera of Tyler’s half of the film—with its plunging depth and 360-degree pans—gives way to a slower, simpler visual scheme that nevertheless compares Emily’s experiences to Tyler’s with an occasional visual rhyme. If the film’s psychology and dialogue remain frustratingly basic, Shults doubles down on raw emotion and subjective feeling, the viscerally effective audio-visual approach amplifying the story’s emotional intimacy in ways the situations and mostly platitudinous dialogue sometimes fail to do.

Waves pushes simplistic drama and sophisticated style, churning tides of love and hate, despair and hope, familial disconnection and aspirational reconnection. Women pushed into men’s shadows persist to step out of them, and hurt people help each other to reach out to the intimates who are hardest to love, dramatizing the grace embodied by the tender performances of Hedges and especially Russell. Ambitious but messy, Waves settles for grabbing us by the shoulders, staring us down, and making us hear the scriptural message delivered by Brown’s redemption-seeking father: “Hatred stirs up strife but love, love covers all offenses.”

Share/bookmark: Digg Facebook Fark Furl Google Bookmarks Newsvine Reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo! My Web Permalink Permalink
Sponsored Links