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London Film Festival 2019 Review - WAVES

waves review
The trials and tribulations of an African-American family in Southern Florida.


Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Trey Edwards Shults

Starring: Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, RenΓ©e Elise Goldsberry, Alexa Demie, Clifton Collins Jr.

waves poster



There were times during Trey Edward Shults' beautiful new film where I was convinced that he was the greatest miserabilist filmmaker since Ken Loach, depressing the hell out of me with the one-two punch of Krisha and It Comes at Night and stressing me out by going to some really dark places in Waves.

But this may be his most hopeful work yet, an alternately distressing and warm portrait of an African-American family in Florida undergoing the trials and tribulations that follow a tragedy. It’s a staggering panorama that, at its most micro level, is a character study of two siblings in the family of four.

waves review
High school student Tyler (brilliantly played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an unsympathetic jock, a wrestler who strains himself to the point of injury. His addictive personality stretches to an over reliance on painkillers and, even more dangerously, an attempt to control his girlfriend Alexis’ (Alexa Demie) destiny after she falls pregnant. His selfish pursuits are hazardous to their emotional and physical health, as he becomes aggressive in the domestic space.

There’s a connection to be made between Tyler and his broad-shouldered, assertive dad Ronald (Sterling K. Brown delivering an awards-worthy performance), a 'like father, like son' comparison of their athletic drive that spills into the pernicious effects of hypermasculinity and patriarchy. This is rather brilliantly established in the power dynamic between Ronald and his physician wife Catherine (RenΓ©e Elise Goldsberry), Tyler’s stepmother, as Ronald insecurely makes the point of keeping the whole family together while Catherine is busy working, bread-winning.

[ READ MORE: London Film Festival 2019 Review - Deerskin ]

On the flipside, the sweetest character in the family is daughter Emily (Taylor Russell, a marvellous revelation), whose personality - introverted, relaxed, respectful - is far away from her brother’s, but her open-hearted nature means she’s out to look after them rather than condemn them or separate herself. From Emily’s perspective, they all just need to be more loving to each other and be a cohesive unit again. She finds love in Luke (Lucas Hedges), an adorably awkward, non-judgemental peer who himself comes from troubled parents, and their journey together is heartfelt.

waves review
Waves is about a lot of things - toxic masculinity, parenthood, young love - and yet it's simply about family, the one thing that holds up an umbrella to all these things, congregating them to build a coherent theme. It's the sort of ambitious, great American family study that, recently, I've only seen in non-fiction filmmaking. Namely, Bing Liu's masterful Rust Belt picture Minding the Gap and Jonathan Olshefksi's decade-spanning epic Quest.

Not only is it about a boatload of issues but Waves takes form in many cinematic ways: it’s part family drama, part interpersonal thriller, part rom-com. All of them are filtered through the aesthetic choices that have well and truly formed Shults’ auteur signature - an aspect ratio that shifts between claustrophobia and personal liberation, slow reverse zooms, threatening piano notes, etc.

[ READ MORE: London Film Festival 2019 Review - Bad Education ]

Speaking to peers at the London Film Festival, I was received with a fairly divided response (though more towards the positive) and, admittedly, there’s scope to dismiss what Shults is trying to achieve here, as his all-embracing approach blurs the line between audacious and ostentatious, feeling like multiple movies in one.

waves review
He may not need to juggle so many balls in the air but the end result is all the better for it - or maybe even worse, depending on who you ask. It’s surprising that such a drama goes down like Marmite, considering it’s not particularly controversial, but I’d chalk it down to the fact that it’s a most structurally unusual coming-of-age movie in a minute.

Accompanied by a soundtrack featuring some of the internet’s favourite rappers (Kanye West, Kid Cudi, Tyler, The Creator etc), the camera swirls around the characters having their carefree teenage life be interrupted by new responsibilities and circulates the images inside your head to linger in the mind, requiring time to process all the meanings of the experience. Maybe you'll find little, maybe you'll find a lot, but there’s one thing I’m sure of and that's that Waves is truly unforgettable.

Waves plays at the London Film Festival October 12th and 13th.


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