starring Kelvin Harrison Jr, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown
written and directed by Trey Edward Shults
by Walter Chaw The first thing I'd say about Trey Edward Shults's Waves is that I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea that this is his story to tell. The tale of the devastation wrought upon a black family by internal and external social pressures is at once obvious in a broad racial sense and relatively superficial in Shults's treatment of it. Narratively, there are no new insights here, although a tremendous cast exhibits truth and grace no matter the shakiness of the picture's framework and genesis. Well into the second decade of the new millennia, however, I guess I'm advocating for stories like this to be told from a different point of view. Failing that, Waves is ultimately a Stanley Kramer melodrama with a banging, transcendent Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross soundtrack/score. It has the best of intentions, no question, but I've seen this story told in this voice before.
At which point Waves is suddenly about Emily, Ronald, and Catharine trying to pick up the pieces of the lives ruined by Tyler's night of misadventure. Ronald takes stock of whatever toxicity he instilled in his son that may have led to that fateful evening, while Emily meets awkward Luke (Lucas Hedges), who kindly and patiently helps her work through her own feelings of guilt. To have a white guy be this for Emily troubles me. A lot of Waves, from its portrayal of the high-school sports environment to its racial violence, troubles me. Also troubling is how Emily encourages Luke to reunite for the last days of his abusive father's life and how this reunion results in a lot of warm-fuzzies rather than further resentment, rejection, and recrimination. I suppose it works out that way sometimes, but it feels sentimental until, when it's used as a catalyst for Emily's own awakening with her family, it starts to feel aggressively on the nose.
But the performances in Waves are, to a one, committed and lived-in. The fights feel right, especially one Tyler has over text with Alexis that is an immediate and smart example of how we communicate now. She ends their dispute by threatening to block him and it's devastating. Later, he finds out where she is because others are posting about it on social media. Drew Daniels's cinematography is invasive, a live wire spinning and swooping in time with the heightened emotions of the piece. He opens with a complete circular pan in a convertible that is vertiginous-to-nauseating. When a scene calls for a certain claustrophobic, lurid paranoia, the aspect ratio shrinks accordingly. Yes, it's showy. Some would say the visuals draw too much attention to themselves. I think the camera simply knows what kind of movie Waves is. The score and soundtrack are similarly kinetic and emphatic, sometimes narrating the undercurrents of a scene, sometimes becoming the centre of it. At the end of the day, it comes down to something articulated by Shults and Harrison Jr. on the press tour for the film, where the latter has praised the former for taking the time to listen to and translate the experience of a young African-American kid. Something's always lost in the translation, isn't it? Programme: Special Presentations