London Film Festival Review: Waves

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With the likes of Moonlight and The Florida Project, it’s no secret that the indie film distributing colossus A24 is a fan of films set in the Sunshine State. Florida has a very particular aesthetic that always translates easily onto the big screen and writer/director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes At Night) has aimed to again capture this for A24 with his 3rd feature, Waves.

Focusing on a suburban African-American family, Waves tackles the lofty themes of mental health, toxic masculinity, family, grief, love, forgiveness and coming together in the midst of a crisis. Shults juggles these themes deftly throughout the film’s 2 hours 15 minutes runtime, with his ability to switch the film’s narrative focus in the second act a huge achievement in the sense that it ties up the story perfectly. The emotional scope of Waves is vast, shifting between each of the family’s four members and their varied predicaments but with particular focus on the two teenagers, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell) and how they navigate their own personal struggles. The dialogue is relatively simple and run-of-the-mill yet it’s the story where the screenplay is the strongest. Though the film’s harrowing first hour or so casts a large shadow over the rest of the film in terms of the tone and mood, by the end it manages to break free of its shackles to create an overwhelming flood of positive emotion and provide catharsis for the events that preceded it.

Despite a shocking turn of events in the middle of the film that will make you audibly gasp that leaves the story in brief paralysis, the energy of Waves is fierce throughout. Thanks to a combination of neon-lighting, electronic music and sublime colour palettes, the audio-visual aspects of this film pack a hell of a punch, brimming with life and relentlessly adapting to run parallel with the story as it plays out. The camera work is absolutely gorgeous, particularly some shots of Florida’s stunning natural beauty combined with a purple-tinted sky that has an ethereal feel to it. The neon-lighting, when combined with close-ups, offer dream-like visuals that transport the viewer into the psyche of the characters on-screen, where their faces do an excellent job of telling the story. All of these wonderful visuals run parallel with the relentless energy of the film’s electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, capturing the tone and the intensity of Shults’ story that never seems to fade. Plus, there’s the lovely addition of Frank Ocean’s wonderful song ‘Godspeed‘ that effortlessly weaves its way into the film.

Waves finds itself elevated by the two lead performances that dominate the two very separate halves of the film. As Tyler, Kelvin Harrison Jr. really puts himself on the map with a passionate, energetic performance that is emblematic of his half of the story. As a hard-working, talented wrestler with a girlfriend he’s madly in love with, it seems as if Tyler has the world at his feet. However, this couldn’t be further from the case, as his story unravels following a shoulder injury and an unexpected pregnancy and he becomes prone to self-destructive behaviour and self-loathing. Harrison Jr. portrays this with raw emotion and a venomous intensity that encapsulates some of these ideas of mental health and toxic masculinity that Shults has written into the film, where at some points Tyler is the victim but also, quite drastically, he becomes the perpetrator.

When the film’s story shifts to Emily’s perspective, the story loses its high-intensity and opts for a softer, smooth ride to process the events preceding it. Taylor Russell again captures this tone in her half of the film, as she turns out a much more nuanced, introverted performance that completely contrasts Harrison Jr’s. Her mannerisms and speech are reflective of her character’s struggles, and she really connects with the audience on an emotional level that makes her a character you can easily get behind.

Sterling K. Brown, as the humourless, pushy father of Tyler and Emily is ferocious and heartless at times yet achingly pained in others and serves as a key catalyst for tying many of the film’s themes together. Equally, the totally affable Lucas Hedges steals the small amount of screen-time he is afforded in his role as Emily’s boyfriend Luke with a humorous, heartfelt performance. Renée Goldsberry and Alexa Demie offer small but strong support as Tyler’s mother and girlfriend respectively and are a huge aspect of how Shults approaches the film thematically, which is certainly a shocking yet smart angle.

The Verdict

Waves slightly stumbles and loses focus after its harrowing mid-film events, yet its audio-visual beauty stays consistent throughout. Shults navigates a story packed full of hefty themes with the deftest of touches that really make this a film that’s very emblematic of our time. Supported by star-making performances by Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell as well as a strong ensemble cast, Waves is an emotional powerhouse of a film that could well be an awards season contender.

Rating: 8/10

Words by Elliott Jones

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