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Hannah Woodhead

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Waves – first look review

This euphoric, music-powered family drama from Trey Edward Shults is a model of tenderness and heartbreak.

Watching a Trey Edward Shults film is akin to willingly giving yourself a panic attack. He makes claustrophobic family dramas (Krisha, It Comes At Night) of Shakespearian proportions, films that thrust difficult individuals into confined spaces and allow chaos to reign. Spiky, discordant music and close quarters camerawork add to that sinking feeling — and his latest, the tumultuous Waves, is no different, although it’s undoubtedly his most ambitious project yet.

Against the backdrop of the Floridian coast, high school senior Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) lives a charmed life. He has an adoring girlfriend, a spot on the school wrestling team and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, despite his father Ronald’s stern and sometimes overbearing presence in his life. But success starts to slip out of Tyler’s grasp following a devastating discovery. With the weight of the world on his shoulders, his collapse comes with disastrous, violent consequences which themselves hold far-reaching implications. In the film’s second half, the focus shifts to Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), and navigates the fallout from her brother’s actions as well as a blossoming romance with awkward, adorable Luke (A24 poster boy Lucas Hedges) who’s also battling his own demons.

When initially announced, Waves was billed as a musical, and that’s true, sort of. No one breaks into song and dance, but the film is powered by a constant rhythm from its eclectic soundtrack that ranges from Dinah Washington’s ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ to Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’, by way of Animal Collective, Glenn Miller, Frank Ocean and Kanye West. It’s as eclectic as any teenager’s Spotify account, with a song for every situation, emotion and memory. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide instrumental sombre piano pieces to fill the gaps.

Comparisons seem likely between Waves and HBO’s Euphoria (an A24 co-production), and they do share the same DNA: bright colours; music as message; teenagers in never-ending freefall. And yet for all its polish, Waves is unmistakably a Trey Edward Shults film in its interrogation of parent-child relationships – Tyler is weighed down by his father’s expectations, and later Emily by his reliance on her as a confidant. Sterling K Brown is a stern parent struggling to keep it all together, and when he finally breaks, it’s genuinely moving.

It’s not without fault — race is reduced to a stern line from father to son (“We are not afforded the luxury of being average”) and the question about whether nature or nurture is the catalyst tragedy at the film’s heart lingers. But a bigger theme emerges: what can, or should, we forgive when it comes to family, and how do we let go of anger before it eats us up inside? Perhaps this is the only deviation from Shults’ past work. Waves, for all the heartbreak, all the sound and fury, is a love story, hopeful despite hurt. It’s a demanding, energetic (and perhaps even a little sprawling) creature, but unmistakably tender.

Published 7 Sep 2019

Tags: Lucas Hedges Sterling K Brown Toronto Film Festival Trey Edward Shults

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