We’re barely a fortnight into 2020 and accomplished films continue to spill onto our cinema screens. Where are all the duds? There have to be some, right?
Waves is a powerful story, told in an unashamedly bravura style by writer/director Trey Edward Shults, whose last film was the underrated It Comes at Night. He focuses here on the lives of a middle-class black family living in Florida. The opening scenes set out Shults’ stall in no uncertain manner, as the camera swoops and spins giddily around the interior of a crowded vehicle, as exuberant as the laughing passengers.
We are looking in on scenes from the life of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jnr), a handsome high school pupil preparing for a bright future at college. Driven by his ambitious father, Ronald (Sterling K Brown), and his more pragmatic stepmother, Catherine (Reneé Elise Goldsberry), Tyler is an active member of his school’s wrestling team and spends every spare moment he can training hard for an upcoming competition.
But Tyler harbours a secret – he’s actually suffering from a serious muscle injury. Doctors have warned him to refrain from exercise, but he continues to push himself and regularly raids his father’s supply of powerful painkillers in order to make it through each bout. To add to his woes, his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Donie), has missed her period and, as the weeks pass, is unsure of what she wants to do about the situation. As the pressure steadily builds, Tyler finds himself spiralling, inevitably, out of control…
The film’s second half abruptly switches its attention to Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who has lived in her brother’s shadow for most of her life. When she meets up with shy, gawky Luke (Lucas Hedges), the ensuing romance helps her to blossom and she starts to discover her own identity. Then she finds out that Luke, one of her brother’s teammates, has his own demons to face…
While the story itself is not exactly undiscovered territory, the telling is extraordinary. Shults uses his cameras to reflect the different moods, employing vivid colours, eerie flashbacks, even sometimes changing the ratio of the screen to enhance the various emotions of the piece, aided by an evocative soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Shults learned his craft as a cinematographer on the films of Terence Malick and some of the great director’s influences are apparent here but, in fairness, the film never strays into the glacial emptiness that typifies Malick’s recent output – and is all the better for that.
Waves is an affecting meditation on love, loss and the process of healing. While Harrison Jnr has the showier role, it’s Russell who really impresses here, as her formerly repressed character gradually emerges from its cocoon and takes flight.
The film won’t be for everyone. Those who prefer a director who reigns in the visual tricks may find the impressionistic cinematography too intrusive. But, for those who admire the director’s art, Waves is a brilliant example of how it’s done.