Review – Waves (2019)

by Armando Vanegas

Waves is the new epic family drama from every millennial’s favorite movie studio A24 and writer/director, Trey Edward Shults. Going into it, I was excited. Mainly because it was Sterling K. Brown aka Randall from This is Us in what looked like a lead role. Also, the trailer, like any for an A24 movie, looked like this was another success in their long ring of successes. I don’t know anything about Shults as a filmmaker, although I heard very good things about his previous movies, It Comes at Night and Krisha. Look, as a black person, there’s not a lot of family dramas in the mold of Terence Malick and Punch Drunk Love coming our way, so the fact that was a movie about a successful black family having nothing to do with them being black in addition to some beautiful cinematography was exciting. I was getting The Place Beyond the Pines feelings as I was hearing about the details about it and the way people were being so elusive about what it specifically was about. It’s cool that movies like this or Sorry to Bother You or Moonlight are finally getting the chance to have a platform to tell stories featuring black centric casts, yet making the stories universal. Having seen the final product, I appreciate what Shults, who happens to be white, did with the ideas he had of telling this story about these very specific individuals and it paid off very well.

Waves is a movie that is purposely fragmented: one half is dedicated to a young man named Tyler and the other to his sister, Emily. The movie begins with Tyler, a high school wrestling student who works hard to be the best. He does well in school, he has an attractive girlfriend, and he seems to be one of the most popular kids at school. The sky’s the limit for him and that’s not always the case when you’re a black person in America. This is why his father Ronald pushes him to be more than average and always come out on top. As any he knows all too well, we always have to work twice as hard as others to get what others have. For most of the movie, I didn’t really like Ronald at first because I always felt like he talked to him like a robot and pushed him too hard. That’s why when Tyler started acting out, I understood why he was that way. He was getting tired of the pressure and he felt that there was no one he could talk to. I will admit the downhill slide is a bit too fast for the character and there should’ve been a more natural build to his more chaotic side. Still, it kept me on the edge of my seat. Things are starting to crumble around him and there’s no way that he can hold onto it. It starts with him getting an injury that could hurt his chances of wrestling in the future. Fearing that he’ll disappoint his father, he hides the details and attempts to act like everything’s normal. Unfortunately, things get worse as a result and he suddenly finds himself with no direction. The tension starts to build with every passing moment. He also has his girlfriend Alexis, whose recent pregnancy just adds to his stress. Alexa Demie from Euphoria and mid90s, is great in the role. She’s played this role all too well in Euphoria and she added a lot of dimensions to the part. She’s currently fighting with Ana De Armas for hottest Latina actress at the moment in my eyes.

When she and Tyler are together, you feel they are young love personified. They are #lifegoals and the movie falls victim to it. The only issue is that we all know that high school sweethearts can’t last long and unfortunately, Tyler never got the memo. Things came to such a head that I thought, “Dude, you did not have to go so far”. Something happens that starts to change what you think about both Tyler and Ronald. At the same time, as I realized what he was trying to do for his son, it became clear that he was just trying to do his best to make sure his son succeeded in this world. He was trying to show him how to be tough in this world and how to fight for what he wants. As the movie went on, I understood that his intentions were in the right place. We’re just thrown into this seemingly typical life of this family and the movie basically just gives the choice to think what we want. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is a new find for me and he was fantastic in the role of Tyler. If any of his other work matches what he does here, he could be an actor on the rise. I know this to be true because I saw Adam Driver back when he was on Girls and I just knew he had something special and it turns out I was right. Hopefully, lightning will strike again. He has so many layers to his performance and he goes through so many emotions during his portion of the movie. I truly believed he was Tyler and I wanted him to not mess up his life. I understood his frustration and yet, I was wanting him to get back on track. When things started going wrong, I was just hoping things would correct themselves. Sterling K. Brown has a smaller role than I expected as his father, Ronald. He’s fantastic in the role and like with Harrison, he gives his characters so many dimensions. There’s a moment where he talks to his son that stood out as one of the highlights of the movie and it helped me understand where he was coming from.

Despite the race of the director, it seems he’s aware of the world around him and manages to show that Ronald’s attitude towards his son is justified to an extent. This portion is the most fun because it’s so energetic and manic in a way that it’s simultaneously exciting and frightening. From minute one, it doesn’t let up in the pacing as the soundtrack is blaring and the camera doesn’t stop moving so as to reflect Tyler’s non-stop hectic lifestyle. It’s a lot to take if cameras constantly moving aren’t your thing, but it’s a brilliant way to create the atmosphere that’s introduced to us. It feels very Terrence Malick with the way the camera moves. I was so impressed by how quickly things move in the pacing and the camerawork. It keeps the audience on their toes as we’re constantly tense about what could happen next. It didn’t help that people sticking their head out of their cars and this being an A24 movie, I was getting bad Hereditary vibes. I didn’t appreciate that shit at all. Don’t get my nerves going like that, movie. You guys and people making better similar jokes on Letterboxd know what I’m talking about. Still, in its quieter moments, it evokes something like The Tree of Life or The New World, when Malick is in top form and he subtly uses the visuals to paint a picture of what’s happening instead of just telling us. The same technique is used here as the story might be simplistic, but it makes us use our senses to get an idea of what’s going on and make our own conclusions.

Once the second part of the movie starts, you’re forced to start seeing the family in a different light. Things aren’t so pretty and perfect as it seemed once a certain event threatens to crumble the family. Emily is well played by Taylor Russell. Compared to how intense her brother was, it was nice to see the differences in their characters and have someone that was a more sympathetic character. Granted, her character is somewhat defined by her brother but it only underlines how much the family has overlooked her for so long. Tyler commanded such a presence that everyone is at such a loss for what to do. Still, it makes sense why the movie purposely changes tones and moods as Emily’s there to be the contrast of the two main characters. She’s the one that does everything right and doesn’t get in trouble. She’s meant to be the boring one and you need that considering how chaotic Tyler’s life is. If he’s the dark side, Emily’s meant to be the light. It gives the movie some proper balance. Understandably, this is a divisive part of the movie for many because it’s just so different from what came before. But, fortunately, Russell is very likable as Emily as even in her lowest moments, you can understand that she’s someone who has a warm heart. She’s just never got much of a chance to show that. Admittedly, I wasn’t as into this part just because it lacks the energy and the excitement of the scenes with Tyler. At first, I felt bad for what Emily was going through and I wanted her to do better. The fact that she has to carry this pain is tough to see her go through.

When Lucas Hedges showed up as Luke, her love interest, I wanted them to work out. Their relationship feels like a genuine love story compared to Tyler and Alexis’s lust for each other. There’s genuine love and respect between both Luke and Emily. They talk like human beings and actually manage to truly understand each other. They have good chemistry with each other. However, once Luke became a bigger part of the movie, I was less interested because daddy issues come into play for him and it does exactly what I didn’t want A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to do when it dealt with similar issues. But it seems in the case of both movies, they refuse to sense these things and do what I prefer. It does help Emily with her own issues as she is the catalyst for both of them getting closure in different ways. While I did appreciate its purpose for Luke’s arc, I didn’t think it needed these characters to make this big sacrifice for a character who was less than respectable. But once we see the end result, it makes sense and I appreciate what it was there for. I just wish there was more with the family as a whole instead. Renee Elise Goldsberry, in particular, gets really short shrift as Catharine, Tyler and Emily’s mother. She’s wonderful when she gets a chance to have her own moments, but I wish there were more. Still, this portion of the movie has Lucas Hedges giving a good performance and I can’t be too mad about that. Even with the issues I had in the second half, I was still wanting more of the movie.

To quote Jerry Maguire, Trey Edward Shults hung his balls out there in terms of how ambitious it was. I’m looking forward to seeing what else he does. It’s clear that he’s as much of an actor’s director as he is a visual director. A lot of the actors are doing incredible work. They make a lot of the movie feel authentic and grounded. The parts with Tyler are the most intriguing from a visual and story perspective. I was on the edge of my seat as we saw what went down with his character. The parts with Emily aren’t as intriguing, but it still manages to pack as much of an emotional punch as the first half when it reaches its conclusion. While it’s a dialogue-driven movie, Shults manages to make it well worth a beautiful cinematic experience due to the gorgeous cinematography and the nice colors. The use of music is brilliant as it acts as another character in the movie in terms of how prominent it is in the character’s lives. The best kind of movies make you feel like a voyeur witnessing private moments you probably shouldn’t. A lot of these indie dramas, when done well, make me feel like that and I end up feeling more engaged in what’s going on as a result. It ends up being really emotionally devastating on the audience as a result of our investment in these characters. Still, not all hope is lost as we see that while we fall down and fail sometimes, there’s also the chance to get back up and heal. Even with its issues, you’re going to leave wanting more and have something to talk about once it’s over.

I am giving Waves a 4.5 out of 5 Hairpieces!



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