‘Waves’ (2019) | Movie Review

Just about a month ago, I was bemoaning the self-conscious, aspect ratio shifting style of Noah Hawley’s directorial debut Lucy in the Sky. That film made such a meal out of its stylistic flourishes it forgot to really delve into the drama supposedly at its center. [Note: Do not get me started on the recent announcement that he was given the keys to Star Trek. Not happy about it.] The techniques he was employing could be used to great effect in showcasing what is happening on screen. Well, we did not have to wait long for that to come true, because now we have the third feature from acclaimed indie director Trey Edward Shults.

Previously, he made the family drama Krisha, which I did not see, and the horror/thriller It Comes at Night, which I detested. So, hearing there was some of this fanciful filmmaking in his latest film Waves, I came in with my guard up, and the first shot of the film did not squelch my fear. The film opens with Kelvin Harrison Jr., also the star of It Comes at Night, and Alexa Demie as Tyler and Alexis, two high school sweethearts, driving down the highway. Music is blaring, and the camera is in the center of the car, spinning around in circles. It’s chaotic. It’s showy. I thought, “Oh, no.” However, as the film progressed and we actually started learning about Tyler and his relationships, I understood why that shot is the way it is.

Tyler is a high school senior on the wrestling team, with a scholarship within his grasp. His father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) wants the best for his kid, but that manifests itself in a rather toxic form, being overbearing, shutting down emotions, and pushing even when pushing is exactly the wrong thing to do. Tyler puts on a nice face for him and his stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), but internally, not only is his emotional landscape breaking down but so is his injured shoulder he is keeping a secret.

Exploring toxic masculinity has long been a popular topic for filmmakers, though for many it is through the lens of embracing the toxicity and portraying it as something heroic. Only in recent years have we really begun to examine the horrific consequences of the “be a man” mindset, and not just in how it affects the man but also everyone in that man’s life. Waves‘ structure is bifurcated, with the first half following Tyler and the second half following his sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Through this device, each side of the exploration feels rich and complete. Emily’s half of the film, in particular, gets at the tragic art of society coming after the people close to the toxicity who don’t ever participate in it themselves.

Each performance rides this fine line between embodying the emotional truth of the situation and melding perfectly with the rather flashy, bombastic visual style Shults employs. Russell, who earlier this year held herself very well as the lead in the silly but entertaining Escape Room, immediately establishes herself as an immensely powerful performer by seemingly doing very little. Her ability to just sit still and think on camera pulls you in and just makes you want everything to be okay for her. The breaking of Brown’s character’s masculine notions and defenses proves to be very satisfying. Harrison as Tyler gives a performance similar to that of this year’s Luce, which also explores a troubled high school male, but the material and style of Waves suits the performance so much better.

Shults’ ultra-showy style here, if it does not completely distance you, felt like the only way to tell this story. The anger and fire inside of Tyler feeds right into the heightened nature of the film. Yes, it is uncomfortable but necessary for it to feel real. The same goes for the more lyrical approach in Emily’s half of the film, and amazingly, the two are apiece with one another. The same authorial voice is clearly present. Melodrama may be a dirty word for many people, but giving yourself over to well crafted melodrama can be an amazing thrill in a theater.

I have kept the details of the story fairly vague here, because I implore you to go into the film without knowing a lot. This is not a twist movie or anything like that, but the emotional ride Waves takes you on should be organic, without you waiting for things to happen. The film features a lovely performance from Lucas Hedges, and I have not even mentioned him yet. Quite frankly, emotion and feeling triumphs story here in every sense. The plot strokes are fairly broad and big, but the characters keep everything true. The film’s final hour left me breathless in the best way. As someone who loves to rewatch the films I love, this will be one I need to take some time before I can go through it again. It’s incredibly rewarding, but it’s a lot of movie.

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