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Review: ‘Waves’ shatters expectations with a family drama that’s pure cinema

by Ace Damon
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the movie

In Trey Edward Shults's "Waves," an emotionally turbulent and formally thrilling drama about the difficulties of a South Florida family, the camera pivots, goes up, and occasionally comes to a significant rest. Sometimes chases the characters from behind, as if trying to keep up; sometimes it approaches, as if to embrace them. This is intensely physical cinema, soaked by the Florida sun and magnetized by the beauty of the faces and bodies of the actors. But it is also deeply rooted in the consciousness of its characters, alert to the feelings of dread, shame, anger and despair that threaten to bring these fast lives to a standstill.

No one moves faster than Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a teenage athlete with bleached blond hair and a longing for life that hits you like – well, a wave. It dominates the first half of this artistically forked drama, and the camera seems to feed on its unlimited energy. He spins 360 degrees as Tyler and his cheerleading girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) drive along the waterfront, sticking their limbs through the windows and approaching the Animal Collective. It traces the same restless circular motion that Tyler runs around in wrestling practice and then falls to the ground while knocking over an opponent.

But things slow down when Tyler returns to his family's suburban home, quickly kissing his stepmother, Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and barely registering the existence of his younger sister, Emily (screen debutant Taylor Russell). A note of tension comes as he mutters a greeting to his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), a rude authoritarian who treats all exchanges as an opportunity for Tyler's improvement. It is true if they are discussing or pumping iron in their gym, pressing on each other and tearing their muscles. Ronald tries to convince his son, or perhaps himself, that all this hardness is for Tyler's sake.

"We can't afford to be average," Ronald teaches his son. "It takes 10 times more work to get somewhere." It's an honest, if prosaic, line in a movie that's less inventive verbally than visually. It is also one of the few times when race, the unrecognizable reality of the Williams family's blackness, is explicitly recognized. (Another comes later, when a stranger throws a racist epithet at Tyler.) This darkness can hardly be unleashed from the competitive spirit of Tyler and Ronald, let alone the extraordinary pressure they put on success in a society that likes to maintain it. them in your power. Place, put.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the movie "Waves".

(A24)

But the emotions that erupt throughout this sad and all-encompassing story – frustrated ambition, defiant anger, heartbroken sadness, rejected love – arise from a place that a viewer of any origin will instinctively recognize. Shults, a prodigiously talented 31-year-old, deals with bold aesthetic gestures and equally bold and emphatic emotions. His work blends John Cassavetes' raw and irregular immediacy and the dreamy poetry of Terrence Malick (with whom he worked on the documentary "Time Travel"), and he shares with both filmmakers an admirable gift for building drama from fragments of reality, by causing tremors of emotion from the things of everyday experience.

The subject of Shults here, as in his previous films "Krisha" and "It Comes at Night", is the fragility of the American family. “Waves” seems to me, perhaps, to be his wildest and most unruly essay on this subject, and also his largest and most moving one. The brash exhibitionism of his technique can sometimes overwhelm the subtlest emotional demands of his material, but it also touches deep reservoirs of feeling that a more cautious approach could never have achieved. More than anything, this is the work of a filmmaker who is never content to just record actions as a passive observer. Shults insists on thinking with the camera.

Harrison, whose performances on "It Comes at Night" and the recent "Luce" have marked him as one of the most interesting and mercurial talents of his generation, makes Tyler a furious study of self-isolation; your confusion is too recognizable and your anger is terrifying. His problems start with little more than persistent shoulder pain, followed by a visit from a doctor confirming his worst fears. Around the same time, Alexis, with whom he likes a highly photogenic and active social media pair, finds out she's pregnant. Tyler is too selfish, too human to see these developments as anything but personal inconveniences: it is as if his body, the source of all his strength and potential, has betrayed him twice, making a promising future unfeasible.

I will avoid commenting more on Tyler's journey in order to preserve the scariest surprises in history, but also to avoid falling into the very trap that the movie itself deftly avoids. "Waves" is unusually attuned to gender disparities, the ways in which men's anger and recklessness often eclipse women's needs, dreams and accomplishments. Tyler is totally indifferent to the wishes of his girlfriend, who wants to keep the baby. He is more his father's son than he thinks; Ronald, who prides himself on his successful construction business, belittles Catharine's work and pays only cursory attention to Emily.

Taylor Russell in the movie

Taylor Russell in the movie "Waves".

(A24)

The surprising and thrilling second half of "Waves" becomes, in a way, a reprimand at first. (It also serves to reject Tyler's wrestling coach's wisdom that "there are no second acts.") Emily, whom we almost always glimpse in fragments, suddenly appears as a protagonist. The camera, so kinetic in Tyler's presence, floats and floats in an approximation of her sister's calmer and more hesitant spirit. Emily is insightful, intelligent, and used to being forgotten; sometimes she seems to be actively dodging the camera's attention.

But she can't escape his gaze, much less that of a classmate, Luke (Lucas Hedges), who is attracted to her beauty and moved by her gentle grace. Their uncomfortable early flirtation quickly flourishes in a real relationship, animated by the sweetness of Hedges puppies and Russell's moving openness. Their bond is also strengthened by a mutual understanding of the family's pain: Luke is dealing with a severely ill distant father, while Emily records the toll of her parents' ill marriage and her brother's self-destructive impulses.

Shults made a desperate image, but not totally discouraged. Its very title is an expression of optimism, a suggestion that if happiness is cyclical, perhaps sadness is too. Superficially, “Waves” refers to the tides we hear beating in the surf at the bottom of many scenes, and also to Kendrick Lamar's music that is noticeably unplayed on the wall-to-wall soundtrack (encouraged by another scene under the skin's score). Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But "Waves" can also describe the film's own composition: not only the two-act structure, but also the way each scene seems to oscillate between dread and ecstasy, tension and release.

Ronald, interpreted with all the painful gravity we expect from Brown, puts these emotional polarities in moral terms when he recites a few Proverbs phrases in recognition of his own failure: “Hatred causes conflict, but love covers all offenses. Shults wants us to dwell on the meaning of these words, to consider them a challenge and a source of comfort. He is not letting anyone off the hook or arguing that redemption naturally follows tragedy. Instead, he wants to show us, really show us, how ordinary life can persist in the shadow of the unthinkable – one step, one hug, and one camera move at the same time.

& # 39; Waves & # 39;

Evaluation: R, for general language, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence – all involving teenagers

Runtime: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood and the Landmark, West Los Angeles

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