Waves still
Image: © A24

‘Waves’ is a triumphant kaleidoscope of family trauma

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Independent filmmaking is on something of a hot streak. After Moonlight bested Hollywood big guns La La Land, Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge to Best Picture in 2016, audiences have since embraced the idiosyncrasies of indie cinema with open arms. Unblemished by the commercial trappings of modern blockbusters, these artsy flicks (think Lady Bird and The Lighthouse) serve as refreshing reminders of the value in ditching convention and opting, instead, for a sense of unique personality which paint-by-numbers pictures are often lacking.

Waves, the third feature film from director Trey Edward Shults, has bags of personality. It’s an utterly sensory experience, one driven by hypnotic visuals and a dazzling soundtrack that drops you straight in the deep end of one family’s struggle to deal with pain and loss in suburban America.

Shults’ splicing of the film works to emphasise both the lasting effects of tragedy and the imperfect, but ultimately restorative, nature of family

It’s also a film of two halves, owing to a bifocal structure which splits the narrative down the middle around an hour into the runtime. The first follows the plight of angsty teen, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), as he navigates the pressures of romance, high school and his father’s overbearing eye, before things switch to the perspective of his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), as she copes with the repercussions of the events of the opening sixty minutes. Shults’ splicing of the film works to emphasise both the lasting effects of tragedy and the imperfect, but ultimately restorative, nature of family. If nothing else, it gives equal stage to two young actors whose future success is all but assured. Harrison is mesmeric as Tyler, the promising teen wrestler whose unashamed confidence crumbles before our eyes, while Russell adds an unnerving vulnerability to proceedings as the endearing recipient of Lucas Hedge’s awkward affections.

Waves is a film about the tripwires of youth, but is as much concerned with parental responses to turmoil as the experiences of the teens themselves. As Tyler’s father, Sterling K. Brown treads the emotional tightrope of pushing a little too hard for your child’s success; his commitment to ensuring his family seize the opportunities afforded to them results in moments of explosive tension between characters who seem to love and loathe each other simultaneously. The performances here are electric, but it’s the film’s unique blend of music and colour that (literally) lights up the screen.

Waves is a film about the tripwires of youth, but is as much concerned with parental responses to turmoil as the experiences of the teens themselves

There’s something inherently photographic about Waves. Oftentimes, it feels akin to a series of ultra-high-definition stills that, themselves, could just as easily capture the tide of troubled youth and familial unrest without the knockout performances that complement the dreamy visuals. It says something of a film’s quality when its best moments come when characters and camera are at their most motionless, when raw emotions are laid bare in a single look or hug that lingers long after the quietude is disrupted. Waves takes obvious inspiration from Moonlight in this way, combining an eye-popping colour pallet with polished cinematography – the latter’s baptism scene proves a particularly apt comparison – to provide several moments that demand you simply sit and drink it in.

But Waves manages to set itself apart through a soundtrack that goes toe-to-toe with the hallucinogenic camerawork. On top of an understated but suitably-trippy score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor (The Social Network, Watchmen), Waves delves into an extensive catalogue of decidedly-contemporary tracks that propel scenes from moving to downright soul-stirring. Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator and others lend their talents to Waves’ story of love and loss, but it’s the songs of Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Radiohead, in particular, that elevate the film’s most poignant moments. Ocean’s Blonde track-list sets the pace for Emily’s journey from isolation to intimacy, while Kanye’s “I am a God” punctuates Tyler’s crazed drink driving sequence with such an intensity as to convince the viewer of their own intoxication. The penultimate sequence, set to the bittersweet melody of Thom Yorke’s “True Love Waits”, is a punch to the gut that will move even the hardiest of moviegoers.

Waves delves into an extensive catalogue of decidedly-contemporary tracks that propel scenes from moving to downright soul-stirring

It’s difficult to talk about Waves without straying into hyperbole, but it manages to walk a line between reticent sensitivity and brazen emotional intensity without ever falling victim to the saccharine pitfalls of many of its character-drama contemporaries. A moving portrait of a broken family and a vibrant feast for the senses, Trey Edward Shults has crafted a picture that comfortably stands alongside this year’s big-hitters. It won’t achieve Moonlight’s Oscar glory, but Waves is far from just a drop in the ocean.

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