Waves (2019)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/22/19 02:31:24
Over the course of his first three films, “Krishna,” “It Comes at Night” and his latest effort, “Waves,” wrier-director Trey Edward Shults has proven himself to be a filmmaker of immense and undeniable talent—his narratives are ambitious in both dramatic and stylistic terms, he knows how to get impressive performances from his actors and each of them have contained a few moments of pure astonishment. The only drawback is that for all of his undeniable formal gifts, he has yet to make a movie that is even remotely close to being as great as his ambitions. “Waves,” a sprawling family drama, probably comes the closest that he has ever gotten to making a good film—at 135 overstuffed minutes, it is certainly the most movie that he has ever served up—but for every element that rings strong and true, there are several that don’t and both are served up with such concussive force that the only thing that most viewers will take away from it is a pounding headache. Like the character that drives its first half, it starts off with all the promise in the world for success and almost immediately begins to fall apart before our eyes to the point of no return and beyond.That character is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and as the film begins, he is a high school senior who seems to have everything going his way—he comes from an affluent family, he is a top student and one of the stars of the school wrestling and he has the love of his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Dernie). Alas, he and his bona fides have barely been introduced before they begin to be stripped from him one by one. He suffers a major muscle tear in his shoulder but instead of getting the surgery that his doctor sternly recommends, Tyler keeps the news from his parents—his stern-but-caring father, Ronald (Sterling K Brown) and his loving stepmother (Renee Elise Goldsberry)—and continues to wrestle so as not to jeopardize his scholarship, dipping into the pain pills his father uses for a bum knee to hide the pain. This plan inevitably ends badly with another injury that essentially ends his wrestling career for good, though he still unwilling to concede the point and continues with the pills. Meanwhile, Alexis informs him that she is pregnant and the formerly happy couple have a bad breakup when she ultimately decides to keep the child. The loss of his outward points of privilege, coupled with his increasing drug usage, send Tyler over the edge one night at a party that ends in tragedy.
At precisely the point where it seems as if the film may all but literally explode off the screen, maybe halfway through its running time, it makes a radical shift in perspective, both in terms of narrative and style. Set a little while after the events in the first half, the focus is now on a character who appeared largely on the periphery in the early going. This is Emily (Taylor Russell), who is Tyler’s younger sister who is struggling to cope in the aftermath of her brother’s action, both at school where she is a virtual pariah and at home, where her once-close family unit has been irrevocably shattered and the online world offer strangers suggesting that she herself should die because of the actions of her brother. Things begin to turn around for her when one of her classmates, Luke (Lucas Hedges), awkwardly asks her out on a date and the two begin a relationship. It turns out that he himself has endured his own share of past family trauma in the past and as time goes on, these two damaged souls come together. Out of the blue, something happens involving Luke’s family and Emily forces him to deal with it rather than ignore it and this leads to her helping to heal two shattered family units, almost as way of balancing the two happy families that were destroyed due to her brother’s actions.
By design, the two halves of the film are so wildly dissimilar from a stylistic standpoint that if you left at some point during the first half and came back in during the second, you might mistakenly think that you had wandered into a completely different movie. The first half of the film is an absolute riot of sound and fury designed to approximate what is going on in Tyler’s mind—the camera is constantly spinning around, the color timing gives everything an otherworldly hue, the music, consisting on any number of needle drops along with (and sometimes on top of) a throbbing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross—is constantly pushing things to the breaking point and beyond and yes, it even includes numerous shifts in aspect ratio, the current cinematic short cut for suggesting the internal mood of the characters without having to worry about conveying it through the screenplay or direction. At times, it feels like the entire first season of “Euphoria” jam-packed into 70-odd minutes—a sensation accented by the fat that Demie also appeared on that show. Then, once it makes its big mid-film fracture, not unlike the radical shifts in narrative perspective seen in films like “Psycho” or “Full Metal Jacket,” the film dials virtually all of its stylistic excesses back to zero for a more naturalistic approach closer in tone to something from the likes of Terrence Malick or the more lyrical works of David Gordon Green. There are still a few technical flourishes here and there but when they do crop up—such as a circular 360 degree camera pan inside a moving car that Emily and Luke are driving in that echoes the film’s opening shot in which Tyler and Alexis do pretty much the same thing—they are there for specific reasons and do not just serve as grand stylistic flourishes.
The two halves are so dissimilar that I suspect that most people will come out of “Waves” liking one of them over the other. Because it is the flashier and more overtly dramatic of the two, many may find themselves preferring the first half over the more genteel last half. Personally, I found that first half to be one of the most excruciating stretches of moviegoing that I have endured this year. For all of the technical flash on display during this part of the film, it never quite hides the fact that the story being told is little more than a dangerously thin riff on Richard Wright’s “Native Son” as told by someone who recalls the broad aspects of the book but precious little of the nuances and observations that made it such an enduring classic. We learn precious little about Tyler as a person before his fall from grace other than the outside trappings of his seemingly idyllic existence and as a result, there is no real sense of loss when it all begins to slip through his hands, thanks to both a horrible set of circumstances but also because of his own sense of arrogance. Since the film doesn’t really give us much of a reason to empathize with his plight, watching him go through his Job-like circumstances is more monotonous than heart-rending and when this sequence finally reaches its violent climax, it feels more like another item being checked off of a list than anything else. As Tyler, Harrison plays it as well as anyone possibly could but there just isn’t enough to the character and as a result, he winds up playing it louder rather than deeper.
If the first half of “Waves” is practically operatic in its approach (albeit in all the worst ways), then the second is more like a gentle ballad and it is all the better for it. Stripping away all the formal trappings, Shults is able to show that he can tell a compelling story without all the gimmickry. To be honest, the material here is not exactly blazingly original either—it feels like an amalgamation of any number of coming-of-age movies that you or I could name. However, it is a vast improvement because he finally is able to relax and let the characters grow and breathe (even the aspect ratio gets a chance to spread out from its previous constrictive dimensions) in ways that suggest that they are real people and not just characters being manipulated by the machinations of the plot. Aiding immeasurably in the success of this segment is the performance by Russell as Emily—while most of her fellow actors are aiming straight for the rafters, she gives a lovely turn as a young woman who, like her brother, is feeling the brunt of incredibly painful pressures but, unlike her brother, is able to avoid succumbing to them. If nearly every single scene in the first half winds up ringing false, nearly every one in the second rings true and that is due in no small part to her efforts.“Waves” is the kind of film that ultimately doesn’t have much to say about anything but does so in such an aggressive manner that you can practically hear the critics arguing over who gets to refer to it as “raw and uncompromising” and “searing” in the ad pull quotes. And yet, it is an unsatisfying film but not necessarily an uninteresting one. Even during the largely terrible and dramatically hollow first half, you can still get the sense that there is a real talent behind it all—excess of this sort is not usually the calling card of a mediocre talent. However, while the second half is not quite good enough to warrant a full recommendation, it is easily the most impressive and invigorating stretch of moviemaking that Shults has done to date and suggests that he may have a better feel for smaller and more intimate works than he does for swinging for the fences. These are the moments when he connects most successfully with both his characters and his audience and they are the ones where one most clearly gets the sense of the great filmmaker that he might one day become.
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