Saturday, December 14, 2019

Waves Is A Frequently Successful Ambitious Directorial Effort From Trey Edward Shults

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has previously been responsible for two movies, Krisha and It Comes At Night, that generated much of their tension from restricting their stories about families going through turmoil primarily to singular locations. Through this restrained method, Shults has created some memorable pieces of intense cinema, but for his newest movie, Waves, Shults is looking to expand his creative canvas. Waves is a project that doesn't just span numerous locations, it also takes place over an expansive amount of time (a sharp contrast to the likes of Kirsha that took place over a holiday dinner) and utilizes a number of bold visual techniques such as shifting aspect ratios. Oh, and Shults is also going to comment on a number of real-world social issues.

This is easily the most ambitious project Shults has made yet and while I'd classify it as his weakest directorial effort to date, Waves has enough gumption that you can't help but admire even its messiest elements while its strongest scenes reaffirm why indie movie studio A24 is so enamored with Shults (A24 financed both It Comes At Night and Waves). The story Shults tells is one that starts out focusing on High Schooler Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) living the good life. He's got a great girlfriend, he's a star on his school's wrestling team and he has a good family that cares about him, even if his Dad, Roland (Sterling K. Brown), tends to push him in subtly toxic ways.

However, all isn't right with Williams and his life starts spiraling out of control. He's gotta deal with the injury that could prevent him from further pursuing his wrestling career, his girlfriend is pregnant and now he's addicted to his Dad's Oxycodone. If I have one chief complaint with Shults script for Waves, it's that the troubles that plague Tyler Williams do have a tendency to be incorporated into the story in a manner that makes them references to hot-button political issues rather than elements stemming directly form this singular character. A scene where Tyler gets the news that he's got an injury that could keep him from wrestling stings because of how both the situation as well as the dialogue in the scene itself are written to be specific to Tyler.

Meanwhile, his drug addiction and the quarrels between him and his significant other over whether or not to get an abortion are painted with a broader paintbrush. Waves struggles to bring its own character-specific interpretation of these elements to the table, seemingly expecting their controversial nature alone to give them dramatic heft in the context of the story. Luckily, Waves does find other ways divorced from hot-button issues to explore Tyler's gradually worsening psyche, particularly through the rich performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. Reuniting with Shults after their work together on It Comes At Night, Harrison Jr. adds another exceptional 2019 lead turn to his belt after his outstanding work in Luce.

Kevlin Harrison Jr. does a complete 180 from the cooly confident yet quietly unnerving work he did in Luce with his performance in Waves, which calls for the actor to portray someone who carries their frustrated emotions much closer to the surface. It's a trait of Tyler Williams that Harrison Jr. handles marvelously in his all-around brilliant performance. Especially impressive in his on-screenwork is how well Kelvin Harrison Jr. can get the audience to be so sympathetic to Williams one minute before turning right around and getting viewers to fear what the character is capable. It's an appropriately complex turn for such a complex film.

The other cast members don't get quite as detailed of characters to play, which leaves some, like Renee Elise Goldsberry as Williams' Mom, with thinly-defined roles to portray. That having been said, the cast is still uniformly strong and Taylor Russell is especially good portraying Emily, the sister of Tyler Williams who has to eventually grapple with her complex emotions towards her brother. Russell and the other actors are placed against environments laced with precisely chosen bright colors. Waves is a brutally dark drama that does not hold back in going to gruesome places, but Trey Edward Shults runs completely against the default grim visual palette of his previous film It Comes At Night by making sure Waves is a visually vibrant film full of soothing colors.

All of those carefully-executed colors make for an appropriate visual accompaniment to the assorted aspect ratios that serve as ways of breaking the film up into about six or so different chapters as well as mirroring the emotional journies the characters (especially Emily) go on over the course of Waves. There's also a bunch of needle-drops of existing songs, some of which work, others of which (like Kayne West's I Am A God playing during a scene of Tyler Williams being enraged) feel too obvious. Most of these tunes aren't as good as the original score penned by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross. Waves offers up a whole lot to prospective viewers in terms of visuals, music, acting and themes packed into its screenplay. Not all of it works but all of that ambition does make for a memorable ride whose high points are truly special.

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