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There are two movies playing out within Waves, the third offering from the rising indie wunderkind Trey Edward Shults, perhaps not surprising to anyone familiar with his previous two efforts. In Krisha, an uneasy Thanksgiving reunion oscillated between exploring a tense family drama and the unravelling psyche of an unstable older woman. In It Comes at Night, a viral outbreak led to both a grim post-apocalyptic morality tale and a nightmarish body horror. Both films are the work of an ambitious, often audacious film-maker tasking himself with a great deal but effortlessly rising to the challenge and with his latest film, already lauded at this year’s Telluride film festival, he’s aiming for something even bigger.
Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is an 18-year-old nearing the end of high school with pressure from all angles. His father (Sterling K Brown) is a well-meaning disciplinarian who wants the best for him even if that means pushing him to his limits. His girlfriend (Alexa Demie) loves him but is concerned about their future after some troubling news. His school life demands him to be both adept in the classroom as well as agile on the wrestling mat. But his shoulder is hurting, more than he’s willing to admit, and he’s not sleeping enough, a hectic schedule that’s proving harder and harder to maintain. So he pops the odd prescription pill now and again, just to ease things a little, a casual habit that slowly grows out of control.
Waves begins with such confidence and bombast that I found myself gripped to the seat, transfixed both by Shults’s bravura film-making and also by Harrison’s barnstorming performance. It’s best to limit your knowledge of what happens before you take a seat, much of the film’s growing unease tied to wondering exactly where Tyler is taking us. We’re sure it’s nowhere good but the specifics are best kept in the dark as Shults plays on our fears with horrifying precision. The majority of the first half is almost unbearably stressful, a sensory overload matched with raw, devastating work from Harrison, who played another student troubled by the pressure of black excellence in this year’s haunting thriller Luce. He invests us in Tyler’s downfall even as his behaviour becomes harder to support and when Shults keeps his uncomfortably tight focus on him, the film soars.
But when tragedy strikes, with half of the film left, Shults switches gears. To explain the hows and whys would be a spoiler but the lens moves to Tyler’s sister, played by the extremely engaging Taylor Russell, who falls for an awkward fellow student, played by an infinitely charming Lucas Hedges. Their scenes have a certain sweetness but the tonal shift is so severe and the first half of the film so deeply affecting that the film never really recovers. The ferocious foreboding turns into something far limper and the much more familiar drama that unfolds feels pedestrian in comparison. I was so wrapped up in the first half that I found myself trying to force myself back on track after it started to derail but the script’s undercooked family dynamic and simplistic philosophy gave me little to hold on to. What’s inarguable throughout, however, is Shults’s aesthetic ability, and Waves is one of the most visually startling films I’ve seen all year. There’s experimentation and verve behind every scene construction, and while he does tend to rely a little too heavily on an admittedly standout soundtrack to carry the film’s emotional weight, I was left in little doubt of his ability as an artist.
So there are two films here: one is frightening and poignant and the other tender but slight. The first one will haunt me even if the second will fade.
Waves is showing at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 1 November, with a UK date yet to be announced
Source: The Guardian
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