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Waves Movie Review

Waves (2019) movie poster Waves

Theatrical Release: November 15, 2019 / Running Time: 135 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Trey Edward Shults

Cast: Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Tyler), Taylor Russell (Emily), Sterling K. Brown (Ronald), Ren้e Elise Goldsberry (Catharine), Lucas Hedges (Luke), Alexa Demie (Alexis), Clifton Collins, Jr. (Bobby), Vivi Pineda (Elena), Harmony Korine (Mr. Stanley), Bill Wise (Coach Wise)


Writer-director Trey Edward Shults follows his little-seen, minimalist 2017 postapocalyptic horror film It Comes at Night with Waves, a grand and epic drama that is two intimate character studies in one.

The first half of the movie centers on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school senior in Florida who would seem to have it all, including a loving girlfriend, attentive parents, and a bright future due to his prowess in wrestling.
Tyler spends his days working out hard with his father (a terrific Sterling K. Brown) and his free nights in the company of the pretty Alexis (Alexa Demie), who dyes his hair blonde for him.

Senior year doesn't go as well as planned for Tyler. His nagging shoulder is diagnosed as a severe injury requiring surgery and a missed season, clouding his prospects as a college athlete. Then Alexis misses her period and after a harrowing trip to the abortion clinic decides she wants to keep the baby. The topic tears at the couple until they're no longer a couple and the frustration over the whole situation escalates and ends in shocking tragedy.

You can't believe Waves goes where it does, but this jaw-dropping turn is merely the end of Act I. The second hour or so of the film focuses on Tyler's younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who up until now has been a peripheral presence. Emily gets asked out by Luke (Lucas Hedges), a wrestler who is more of a nerd than a jock. Love blooms between the two teenagers and Emily, who along with her family has been coping with the fallout from Act I's gut punch, encourages Luke to go see his deadbeat father before he dies.

The first half of Trey Edwards Shults' "Waves" centers on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), whose senior year of high school does not play out as expected for he and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).

There are films that synopsis cannot do justice and Waves is unequivocally one of them. Shults' third feature is an immersive experience comprised of two disparate halves. The first is presented with bold kineticism, which renders its grim destination all the more shocking. The second is more tender and solemn, but no less powerful or stylish. Both halves dazzle with the free-floating cinematography of Shults' regular cinematographer Drew Daniels, which mines locations and production design for maximum impact. There's also a potent score by the David Fincher-seasoned duo of Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross. These compelling technical facets only serve to enhance, not muddle, strong performances from the entire cast.

Waves is distinguished by the immediacy and authenticity of the presentation. You go through it not as mere observer but as a participant, having been made privy to all kinds of raw, private, often explosive moments. There's so much specificity to the proceedings that you'd suspect Shults recently grew up a wrestler in an affluent African-American family in Miami instead of being white, hailing from Texas, and starting the decade as an intern and film loader on a trio of Terrence Malick productions. That speaks to Shults' skills as a storyteller, which are plain to admire even in such a visually striking work where the aspect ratio changes again and again.

Like Shults' first two films, the blink-and-miss Krisha and aforementioned It Comes at Night, Waves carries the arthouse credibility that comes from being distributed by A24. And sure enough it was among the handful of A24 releases that received a nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards last week, with Russell picking up a well-deserved nod for Best Supporting Female.
Carrying the second half of the film on her shoulders, the Escape Room star is the film's most likely target for recognition, along with Brown, well-liked from "This Is Us", who breathes life and layers into his disciplinarian dad duties.

Rolling out in theaters at the peak of awards season openings, Waves seems very capable of getting lost in the mix as far as accolades are concerned. It will need to garner the attention and admiration of general moviegoers, not just cineastes, should it surmount the question that A24 films face every year -- "is it big enough for the Oscars?" I doubt that it is and yet it is so clearly a more meaningful and resonant use of the medium than the kinds of crowdpleasing wide release movies like A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Ford v. Ferrari that will be accepted as contenders. For me, Waves is a Top 20 film of the year and one I won't forget when filling out my awards ballots.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The Lighthouse • Marriage Story • The Irishman • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults: It Comes at Night
Mid90s • Moonlight • Lady Bird

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Reviewed November 26, 2019.

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