[TIFF Review] ‘WAVES’- a youthful opera about family and choices

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James Clay // Film Critic

WAVES

Rated R, 135 minutes.
Director: Trey Edward Schulz
Cast: Lucas Hedges, Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie

TORONTO – The choices we make have a spiraling effect that can impact those around us for a lifetime.

Emerging filmmaker Trey Edward Shults’ trajectory has been rising. His first two films, KRISHA and the lesser IT COMES AT NIGHT, packed a wallop and put him on the map. His latest, WAVES, is his most complete vision. Shults, who worked with Terrence Mallick earlier this decade, took all of Mallick’s best qualities and put them into a bombastic piece of work that’s bursting at the seams with youthful energy.

WAVES is of two minds. One is a clinched fist shaking with anger and energy, while the other is lighter than air – a freeing experience that feels like an ocean breeze. Shults is looking to tell a great American story about the consequences and limitations we should put on ourselves. Ultimately, WAVES is about swelling emotions and accepting the fallout.

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., who has been killing it this year between this and LUCE) is an attractive, hip and successful high school athlete. His overbearing yet loving father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), puts lofty expectations on his son. Tyler has been conditioned to keep a certain level of masculinity turned on at all times. He’s working towards getting a wrestling scholarship and is happily dating his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demis of HBO’s EUPHORIA), who fits perfectly in his puzzle that will allow Tyler to move to the next stage of his life.

Everything on the surface is good. Ronald’s business is providing an upper-middle-class home. His sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), supports him when times get hard – and his stepmother, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldberry), has accepted the kids as her own since their mother died. Sometimes it’s not enough, and one missing piece can cause the whole empire to topple.

Harrison is proving himself as a preeminent acting talent. He can be smooth and explosive. I think we’re seeing somebody special honing their craft.

Drew Daniels’ suffocating camera work continues the trend he set with KRISHA. It articulates Tyler’s mental state. Even in his most joyous moments, Daniels frantically moves the camera around. It’s essentially being thrown around a mosh pit. It’s disorienting, but once you get the in the groove, it becomes part of the furniture.

The score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor is prevalent. But nearly as memorable are Shults’ needle drops, including A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean and Radiohead, all of which work with emotional relevance. However, the music seems a bit too put upon in the long run.

Although imperfect, Shults is a filmmaker who has always been able to present a vision. He’s a Texas filmmaker we need to hold close to our hearts. Each three directed works have been developed with similar themes of emotional and physical isolation, but he has reinvented and further grown that message with each consecutive film.

WAVES crashes and (purposefully) never recovers. Its tamer second act strolls into the foreground as we begin to follow Emily and her developing relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges, in a delightfully awkward form). Shults is looking for how to mend the decisions we make and reckon with a life that has changed so drastically. Life is all about peaks and valleys, and WAVES is about what we do after the crash.

Grade: B+

WAVES premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. An encore will be held at 2:45 p.m. on September 15. Visit tiff.net for more information. A24 will release the film theatrically on November 1.