Waves (2019): CIFF Film Review
This review was filed from the Chicago International Film Festival.
The first five minutes of Trey Edwards Shults' Waves is a complete mess. Filled with a mix of blatant camera movements, rushed scenes, and loud booming Tame Impala and Animal Collective playing in the background, it feels almost impossible to track what exactly is happening, as everything is being shoved at the viewer at a lightning speed. But to me, that isn't a weakness. In fact, I see it as an absolute strength, and something that really sets Waves apart from the other movies that deal with a rocky road coming-of-age plot-line. The tagline for this TIFF and Telluride hit is simply five words: "Let it rush over you." And for this movie, that is simply what you have to do. You have to invest yourself in the lives of these two teenagers, both of whose lives change forever, for the worse and for the better. Schults gives you know choice but to sit on the edge of your seat, laughing, crying, and sympathizing with the characters as their lives take turn after turn, never seeming to follow a straight path. You have to let the feeling of the hot Florida sun touch your skin, the sound of the waves crashing against the characters fill your ears, and the aura of the film take over your mind for its 135 minute runtime. There is simply no other way to experience a film as immersive and real as Waves.
The film can be describes as two different stories combined into a single film. For the first half of the movie, the viewers are given a front row seat into 18 year old Tyler's (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) life, as he deals with a horrifying shoulder injury, an maybe pregnant girlfriend, and a newfound addiction to prescription pills and alcohol. As the film continues on, the audience begins to uncomfortably stir as Tyler's actions and toxicity begin to affect the people close to him, and not just himself anymore. And then an event, one minute long scene, changes everything for the movie: the tone, the ambiance, and the general shock begins to change as we leave Tyler's world and enter the world of his Emily (Taylor Russell), the shy younger sister of the family. The film leaves Tyler's story all together and instead puts all its focuses on to Emily's rise into becoming an adult, aided by love for her new boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) and her struggle to deal with a family that seems to have left her, and themselves, behind. Whereas the viewer is forced to watch Tyler's destruction, the viewer is also able to see the subsequent rise of Emily, a true testament to how much this movie is able to encapsulate its viewers. Sure, Waves is a tragedy of sorts, but it is reflexively redemptive as well. It is simply a beautiful film.
There's a lot that won't connect to audiences with this movie, and that is okay. It makes some "interesting" stylistic decisions, such as a rapid-fire soundtrack that booms constantly throughout the film with the likes of every genre (I'm taking Kanye West to Frank Ocean to Radiohead within a single hour), a consistent change of aspect ratios (which are meaningful to the story at least, unlike the awfulness that is Lucy In The Sky), and some wacky camera shots (including but not limited to two different scenes of a camera spinning in full circles inside the backseat of a car for a nauseating amount of time). But in my opinion, these decisions are much needed to capture the flow and essence of the film. There is no doubt, it is an extraordinarily heavy film, and is hard to watch at countless little moments throughout the movie. But these technical decisions help prove how heavy it is, because at every second, there is something booming on screen or in your ear. The heavy soundtrack and camera shots are giving the film a second sort of meaning, while the aspect ratios are providing a sort of metaphor for how the film seems to be flowing, proving the importance of the over-reliance on all three aspects.
You can't talk about Waves though without at least shedding a little light on the acting ensemble in the film. Through the eyes of the actors, specifically through Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s and Taylor Russell's performance, each character is personified in perfect fashion, and at times, it is nearly impossible to separate actor from character. Harrison Jr. had proven his worth as an amazing earlier this year in Luce, and now he is simply showing off. Similarly, Russell has proven that she is one to watch as film moves on, as her performance encapsulates everything that her character does - a shyness that begins to fade as her story-line goes on, eventually leading to a happy yet tormented young woman who still questions everything. With support from the other actors on screen, the two are given the opportunity to shine. And the opportunity is taken to its full advantage, that is for sure.
This movie is going to be divisive, there is no doubt about it. In fact, as I was walking out of the theatre, I already overheard people talking about how it is too much plot, and not much else. I think younger audiences will eat this film up, while elder audiences might have a harder time understanding the movie - simply because it is so appealing to the younger generations, who understand how societal pressures can make and break people. The generations who have an understanding about how a modern high school setting works or how people are stunted by their smartphones will especially connect with this movie - just how I did. Of course there will be exceptions to this opinion of mine, but as many before me have said when reviewing Waves, certain people get it clearly, while certain people have a harder time understanding. And there is nothing wrong with that. As a high-schooler, I saw Waves as something "all too real", and I think that just might be a pivotal part of why I loved it so much. As a script writer who hopes to see his movies on the big screen one day, I loved the tonal shift of the soundtrack and the immersive and "out-of-the-box" camera angles. I write in a similar fashion. I connect with this movie in ways I could have never imagined, and I hope you do. Because it is beautiful.
Don't see Waves because of the Kanye, Kendrick, Frank filled soundtrack, although it is a nice touch to recognize the music while watching the movie. Don't see Waves because of the divides and decisiveness it might cause, because there are other movies that divide audiences in a much more controversial fashion. No, see Waves because of one reason, one simple reason that in my opinion, doesn't need any more explanation than I've already given. See Waves because it is a great movie. Need I say more?