Waves, 2019, 1 ¾ stars

Only coming through in Waves

Image copyright A24

Exclusive to MeierMovies, November 27, 2019

Waves, the new drama by writer-director Trey Edward Shults, has more in common with the cinematic movement it shares its name with than is immediately apparent. Like the French New Wave, it experiments with form. Specifically, it adopts radical aspect-ratio changes, circling camera movements and sound innovations. But more significantly, just when we start caring about the main character, the film drops him – along with almost all of the original storyline – in favor of another. In this respect, and thanks to its impressionistic storytelling in general, Waves is truly Nouvelle “Vague.”

Shults specializes in stories of families in crisis. In his debut feature, Krisha, he focused on alcohol and drug addiction, while in It Comes at Night, he turned from drama to horror to tell the tale of an apocalyptic pandemic. In Waves, he often uses a similar horror style in his unrelenting focus on tragedy.

This is the story of a black family in South Florida struggling to overcome trauma involving their son, Tyler, and that’s really all you should know going in. Unfortunately, that’s about all I knew going out, as Shults’s style completely overwhelmed the substance for me. At every turn – literally, as the camera rarely stays still – the film was demanding that I appreciate it, notice the pretentiously ever-changing framing and suffer alongside the characters. By the end, and despite accomplished performances, I was exhausted by this unpleasant, overscored and structurally frustrating film.

Its failure is even more disappointing because of the inherent value of the story, which, refreshingly, focuses on a close-knit, suburban, African-American family. Even more noteworthy is the fact that Waves is set and filmed in Florida, and uses Florida talent. We need more of this. (I’m speaking to you, Sunshine State legislators.) But I still can’t embrace a production that leaves so many narrative loose ends and resembles a two-hour music video.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Tyler, Taylor Russell portrays his sister, Alexa Demie is his girlfriend, Renée Elise Goldsberry plays the mother, and Sterling K. Brown is the father. All are superb. Also noteworthy is Lucas Hedges, who steps in about halfway through the film to play the new boyfriend of Tyler’s sister. But by the time he arrives with yet another tragic story (cancer and childhood abuse), I was looking at my watch (the film is 135 minutes) and wondering when and whether the missing Tyler would return to the narrative.

I eagerly await Shults’s next project, especially if he chooses to film it in Florida. His movies, which are often infused with a dreamlike quality, are difficult to dismiss. But, for me, Waves is a migraine.

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