TL;DR – A challenging film to watch at times, but always beautifully shot and acted.
Score – 4.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – There is no post-credit scene
Warning – Several scenes may cause distress and a scene that features extensive flashing lights.
When you go in to see a film, many factors engage you. There is the sound, the visuals, or the story. However, there is one factor that can have in an impact that you might not expect is that feeling of being in a room with a bunch of people that you don’t know who are having the same emotional experience. Today I look at a film where I felt the oxygen get sucked out of the room, felt the shock, and heard the gasps of exclamation.
So to set the scene, we open in on the Williams family as we get to see snippets of their lives. Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is the firm farther pushing everyone to be the greatest they can be, Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) might be a step-mother to the children. Still, she cares for them as if they were her own, (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) the local wrestling champion and eldest of the family Emily, and then (Taylor Russell) their caring daughter and Tyler’s sister. Tyler has everything going for him, he works for his dad, he is a star on the team with college scouts coming to the games, and an amazing girlfriend in Alexis (Alexa Demie). However, this façade starts to crumble when a shoulder injury doesn’t go away.
I am going to start the central part of this review by saying that it might be best to go into this film with as little knowledge as possible, so when those moments hit, they hit hard. Indeed it is going to be hard to talk about the movie in any meaningful way without running into spoilers right away. So with this in mind, I will try to be as vague as possible about the story beats throughout the review, but I will talk a little of the structure in the penultimate chapters where there will be full spoilers.
Without a doubt, the first thing that I felt when I walked out of the theatre is just how amazing every single cast member was in their roles. Sterling K. Brown has a stare that can puncture through the screen and impact you, and frankly, I would never want to be on a receiving end of one of those when he is upset. His character is in many was the emotional instigator for a lot of the drama, and it could have been a hollow role with nearly anyone else. Renée Elise Goldsberry had these moments of sheer emotional force that hurt to watch, she has to go to some dark places in this film, and she nails it.
The first of our leads is Kelvin Harrison Jr. who might have one of the most challenging performances I have seen in a long time, and he absolutely pulls it off. Tyler is full of confidence and on the top of the world, and that is what makes his fall all the harder to watch because you understand each pressure point, why it is crucial, and why it fails. There are events in this film that are hard to watch, and it would have been easy to play Tyler as this one-dimensional character, but Kelvin does not do that. He brings depth to Tyler, which makes it more heart-breaking when things fall apart. Then we have our second lead Taylor Russell who is the emotional core of the film. Without a doubt, this film would not work if the character of Emily fell flat, Taylor elevates the role with an expertise that would be difficult for much older actors to pull off. Both of these actors are so good that it is shocking that their acting did not even rate a mention at last year’s Oscars.
We then move into the visual elements of the film, that I think maybe the first thing that you notice about Waves. The camera is rarely locked off in one spot, watching the action like a neutral observer. Instead, it moves with a personality, weaving through the action, swinging around a space, and positioning itself in angles that you don’t usually see in the cinema. There is one shot that I want to know how they pulled it off as the camera swings and weaves its way through a car. I am sure it is a rig that goes in through the sunroof, but it is much more than that. However, because of the way that it is filmed, you feel like you are in the middle of the action rather than passively observing it. This is electrifying right up until the film makes you feel like an accomplice.
To go with this camera with a personality is attention to light and colour that is almost unmatched in this industry. Two colours permeate throughout the film; there is cold blue with flashes of red. You see it in the curtains in the room, a splash of colour on fingernails, and in the many sunsets throughout the film. They use it in such striking ways that you come to internalise it, which makes when they subvert it with the flashes of police lights hit that much hard. This is amplified by a musical score that weaves in and out of being diegetic, with moments in the real world flowing into the music, and the music flowing into the real world.
Where this film sets itself apart for many others is in its use of tension and structure, but to talk about that I need to engage [SPOILERS] as I mentioned earlier. Few films have had me on the edge of my seat, my heart pounding a hundred miles an hour desperately hoping that what I fear is about to happen does not happen. To have that level of tension you first need to create characters that you understand and care about, you need to create a scenario that makes the stress feel real, and you need to have the dread that you know what is about to happen and can do nothing to stop it. The moment that followed this had every single person in the screening I was at gasp out loud at what happened. Made worse by the fact that several characters could have stopped what happened if they had acted, or understood the situation, or spoke directly rather than saving face. If someone had put their pride away and listened and reflected on why Tyler would hide a Level 5 SLAP tear and put two and two together to where all his pain medication is going the outcomes might have been very different. It is a revelation that sends shockwaves through everybody’s lives.
This is coupled with a film structure that very much goes against the traditional narrative structure. There is a point in this film where you would expect the movie to end, it even cuts to a version of black, and I naturally expected those credits to roll. However, not only does that not happen, we are only halfway through the film. This was a shock to the system at first, and also explained why Lucas Hedges has credited even though he had 5 seconds of screen time up until that point. When you realise what is happening, you realise just how important this choice was. Quite often films finish at or in the immediate aftermath of the incident. Police lights flash, hospital sounds beep away, and you might see the outcome but maybe not. However, here we linger, here we see the impact of the incident as it works its way through the family and the community. It set the film up for some of its more profound emotional moments, and this structural shift made it better.
In the end, do we recommend Waves? Look, this is a difficult thing to say. There are some deeply emotional moments throughout the film that make it hard to watch. However, the performances are amazing, and the movie sucks you into this world in ways I have not seen before. It is a profoundly affecting film and if you want to have those moments then yes I would recommend it. If you did like Waves, I could also recommend to you Queen and Slim.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Waves
Directed by – Trey Edward Shults
Written by – Trey Edward Shults
Music by –Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Cinematography by – Drew Daniels
Edited by –Trey Edward Shults & Isaac Hagy
Production/Distribution Companies – Guy Grand Productions, JW Films, A24 & Universal
Starring – Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, Clifton Collins Jr., Vivi Pineda, David Garelik, Alexa Demie, Bill Wise & Neal Huff
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A; Germany: 12; New Zealand: na; United Kingdom: 15; United States: R