Thursday, December 5, 2019

Waves - Review

When stepping back and looking at a film, at all its excellence and shortcomings, an idea of its merits as a whole film usually emerges. It doesn’t always happen that way exactly, but more often than not, some clear image of what a film’s intentions were will come through. Waves is different. From the moment its dizzying opening scene throws everyone off balance to the serene moments that close the film, piecing together what it wants to be is kind of half the battle. A battle that Waves only wins if you can make it through an onslaught of color and sound at the beginning to the more graceful, reflective second half.

The epic emotional journey of a suburban African American family as they navigate love, forgiveness and coming together in the wake of a tragic loss.

Let’s just get this out of the way: Waves is two very different films in one. One is before, told from the eyes of the son who excels, in both wrestling and his social standing. The second is after, told from the eyes of the quiet daughter, mostly pushed aside for the accomplishments of her older brother. The two vary in tone, messaging, and even quality, even if they’re tied together by a brilliant score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And ultimately, you’re left preferring one half over the other, wanting more of it than what you get.

Though the narrative may really only connects halfway, the performances are what save Waves from complete collapse. In a just world, Sterling K. Brown, the king of gravitas, intense eyes, and smooth words, would be in the thick of the supporting actor awards conversation. As the father of this family, Brown takes the biggest leap from the beginning to the end, growing from a pressuring father to a somber one in the wake of tragedy. Seeing RenĂ©e Elise Goldsberry on the big screen is also a delight, even if she really doesn’t get as much to work with as the other members of the cast. 
It’s easier to sing the praises of Waves, or at least the bright spots of Waves, when it provides audiences with two young actors delivering stellar, award worthy performances. Kelvin Harrison Jr., as the driven, focused Tyler, only proves his status as one of the better young actors in Hollywood. Harrison matches the intensity of Brown, but with far more anger and erratic behavior as the film moves. It’s an electric performance, and it makes sense that the first half of the film is also erratic to match his perspective, even if it doesn’t work. Where the film truly shines is when it flips to character of Emily, played by Taylor Russell. Russell is exquisite, a far more graceful, subtle, and emotional performance and her side of the story falls more in line with that tone as well. Without the disorienting mayhem of the first half, Waves is able to reach the emotional heights it aims for with the quieter view of Emily.

Waves falls victim to its own story structure. While it's easy to see the dichotomy that writer and director Trey Edward Shults was going for, it winds up presenting a better alternative in its second half, a film that’s better crafted and more enjoyable than the first. At the very least, it provides an outlet for two newcomers in Harrison and Russell, both of whom will rack up breakthrough actor prizes as the season progresses. It’s not like Waves is a bad film, far from it actually, it just can’t connect the dots of the themes it’s trying to convey, resulting in an emotional ripple instead of the tsunami that it wants to be.

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