Review by George Kozera for Mr. Will Wong
Set in South Florida, overachiever Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) appears to have it all – at first glance. His family is well-to-do and live in a spacious, beautifully-decorated home. He is one of the top wrestlers at his high school, he plays a little piano and he and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) are madly in love. His relationship with his mother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) is extraordinarily-close and honest, he gets along well with his younger, more quiet and solitary sister Emily (Taylor Russell). He spends a lot of time with his strict, disciplinarian father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). Ronald constantly pushes Tyler to be the best at everything.
Then small cracks appear in Tyler’s life. He develops a shoulder injury and rather than lose his wrestling status, he keeps it a secret and starts to self-medicate, using his father’s painkillers, which Ronald takes for a bum knee. Then, he starts to consume a large amount of drugs and alcohol when he and Alexis socialize with friends. When Alexis tells Tyler that she is pregnant, his life quickly spirals downwards, culminating in a great tragedy.
Welcome to the First Act of WAVES, one of the most emotionally-investing and devastating movies of the year.
Act Two centres around Emily. Always shy and now being ignored by everyone at school, she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges) and they slowly develop a relationship. Watching Emily grow and mature as her life with Luke joyfully unfolds, is reassuring. Even when we learned that they both have issues with issues with their fathers and work to overcome them, we root for them.
Director Trey Edward Shults is a bonafide genius and what he has accomplished with WAVES, only his third Feature film, is beyond impressive. With Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross behind the Music, the Soundtrack is a character on its own and never fails to either highlight or beautifully-enhance what we see on- screen. Among WAVES many accomplishments, it is an energetic, aural feast. Visually, this Movie stuns. Having worked with Terence Malick on three of his films, you can see Shults was influenced but he has made it his own. There are sweeping 360 degrees shots, hyperkinetic neon-coloured interiors, panoramic vistas, many scenes goes to black, then re-emerge with audacity and splendour. The shifts in tone between the Movie’s two acts is stunning. To say that I was thunderstruck by what Shults has accomplished with Cinematographer Drew Daniels is just too mild an adjective.
But what propels WAVES to greatness are the performances and I doubt if I will see a better Ensemble of Actors attain nirvana this year. I have not yet seen Lucas Hedges give anything less than a stellar performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in Manchester by the Sea. Whether he is the lead or supporting character, he is always on-point and memorable, and the subtle range he displays in WAVES is laudable. Renee Elise Goldsberry has moments of emotional impact that will resonate with me for a long time. Alexa Demie is fiery, passionate and unforgettable. Sterling K. Brown brilliantly portrays intensity – there is one scene where he gives his son such a withering, frightening stare, that I literally shrunk down in my seat in fear. There also is a monent where he tries to reconnect and reconcile with his daughter Emily, that is masterclass and accolades worthy.
I was first made aware of Kelvin Harrison Jr. last year at TIFF seeing him in Monsters and Men. Since then, not only has he been nominated for an IFC Best Actor award for his work in Luce, what he has accomplished in WAVES is stratospheric. It is powerful and provocative. Lastly, there is Taylor Russell. Already recognized with nominations for a Gotham and an IFC award for this role, what this young Canadian Actress accomplishes in this Movie is simply perfection. Her range and impact is boggling and she should be heard from Awards Season.
WAVES has stayed with me for days after seeing it. It is audacious. It is gripping. It is unpredictable. One of the year’s best.
Elevation Pictures release WAVES Friday, November 22, 2019.