Waves LFF 2019 film review

★★★★

Directed by: #TreyEdwardShults

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Starring: #TaylorRussell, #KelvinHarrisonJr., #AlexaDemie

BFI London Film Festival 2020

Film Review by:

Andrew Young

Waves is a film about a life-altering event. In fact, it feels like 2 films: one about how we get to the event, and one about coping with it. Neither of these two films are perfect, but both are very good, with moments in the first half reaching a feverish intensity that I have rarely, if ever, felt in the cinema.

The plot spans many events and many relationships, but is probably best described as being about a single wealthy, seemingly happy African-American family and the turmoil it faces. The drama is set in motion when golden boy Tyler - sporty, musical, good-looking, popular - faces an injury right as his sporting season takes off. Combine this with relationship troubles and the disappointment of father Ronald, who has pushed Tyler to be the best physically and academically for years, and you have a young man in trouble. To say much else about the plot would be to dull the effect of its many narrative shocks and shifts in focus.

What Shults is able to explore in this story is what happens when someone at the top of their game begins to slip. There are several scenes in Waves of fast cars that look like they could crash at any moment. Tyler’s life is a bit like this: moving smoothly but with such high speed and intensity that if he loses control, it could be a car crash of astonishing proportions. He is someone whose identity and personal relationships are based on success. He is in a happy, loving life when everything is positive, but appears lost and alone when faced with adversity he has not felt for some time.

The relationship between Tyler and his family is an interesting one, with the film largely interested in the dynamic with his overbearing father. Whilst the ‘pushy but well-meaning parent’ trope has been done before, Shults adds a layer of depth which makes it far more engaging. In one of the few moments in the film that openly discusses the family’s race, Ronald tells his son that “people like us are not afforded the luxury of being average”. You sense the pain in his voice, the frustration that he feels he has to push his son so hard, that in Ronald’s mind it is something that is absolutely necessary.

Shults’ story has this kind of complexity and depth in abundance, but most impressive is the incredible pace and style with which he tells it. The film’s opening sequence is a stunning display of Tyler’s life unfolding smoothly before him, à la the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas. As things go awry Shults and DP Drew Daniels employ a variety of visual flourishes, mixing with enthralling soundtrack choices to give the action a propulsive tempo that leaves you feeling somewhat exhausted. As the film then moves beyond ‘the event’ the director manages to keep the style turned on, whilst also dialling the intensity down. Particularly impressive is his deft hand with the quieter parts of his film, knowing when to let his actors just sit and talk.

The cast are uniformly excellent, carrying the film through its more overfamiliar story beats and themes. Much of the attention is going to Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler, playing the golden boy’s breakdown with conviction and heart, making the downward spiral seem nightmarishly plausible. Praise must be given, too, to Taylor Russell and Lucas Hedges as Emily and her boyfriend Luke. They have a hard job to do carrying a second half that was always doomed to pale in comparison to the first. Their easy charm and chemistry brings out the humour in Shults’ film, providing something near elation as we finally get respite and restorative hope in the wake of Tyler’s nightmare.

Given the acting calibre of Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry as the family parents, it would have been nice to see more of them. In fact, there are several points at which Shults’ narrative priorities are awry. We get glimpses into so many relationships and dynamics amongst this family that, whilst each one is beautifully played and hits hard emotionally, there is also the sense that Shults is overreaching with his story, trying to make multiple films at once.

There are things we should have more of, like Tyler and Emily’s relationship, and things we didn’t need to see, like a roughly fifteen-minute segment near the end that, whilst well-acted and attractively made like the rest of the film, feels largely unnecessary, hammering home a point that had already been more subtly made. Even amongst the magnificent depiction of Tyler’s turmoil, things happen so quickly that they feel slightly contrived. Shults’ script includes hints at so much pain and complexity that it’s almost overwhelming, which speaks to the film’s power, but sometimes it feels as though Shults is just piling it on rather than investigating the trauma.

Waves is far from a perfect work, but it has so many high-points and such daring confidence in Shults’ direction that its praises are well worth singing. This is a film of startling ambition and confidence, addressing a host of issues and working its way through so many incidents and howls of emotion that it is a near-oppressively striking piece of cinema. It is a testament to Shults and his cast that they pretty much pull it off.