Waves (2019): Review

Probably spoilers. Read at your own discretion.

Waves lives in me now.

Somewhere around the forty-minute mark, it crawled inside my veins and made a space for itself in my bloodstream. If you think I’m being hyperbolic, perhaps you’re right, but that’s what it felt like to me. In fact, there weren’t many things I didn’t feel during this movie. I sat and I absorbed every moment with rapturous attention, each emotional beat hitting me harder than the last.

I know a lot of people have problems with this, but it became exactly what I had anticipated and I’m so glad that this movie exists. Despite the issues it most definitely does have, I never detached from its grip. Every soundtrack choice hit just right, every performance was so special that each of them does something that gives it a spot in my favourites of the year.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. echoes his other impressive 2019 performance in Luce playing the teenager with massive amounts of potential. Luce was mostly straight-laced, whereas Tyler is under immense pressure both from his father and himself. It’s a vicious characterisation and his performance matches that expertly. Here’s an actor who bites into every facet of his role and clings to that. Harrison clearly understands the journey of his character and how each moment builds on top of the last to affect Tyler’s psyche and it’s truly riveting to watch. Usually accompanied by a pulse-pounding soundtrack or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ brilliant score, Harrison brings a much-needed gravitas to the role and he becomes impossible to take your eyes off.

Almost the antithesis (for a reason I’m going to touch on later) is Taylor Russell’s Emily. Russell started 2019 delivering the standout performance in a not-so-great movie Escape Room, and she ended 2019 delivering the standout performance in a pretty great movie, Waves. She’s certainly one to watch, in part down to her control of her performance. She never lets Emily get away from her, even when the script sometimes demands Emily to fly free and let go of her bindings. Russell dominates every scene she’s in, even if it isn’t focused on her. There’s a particular scene with Emily and Tyler in a bathroom and it’s one of my favourite scenes in the film. Harrison and Russell both bring their A-games, but Russell surprised me in the best way. Her tender delivery complements her expressive facial features and they work together to create a beautiful portrait of quietness in a world where everything comes crashing down around you.

Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry give duelling performances as the Williams family parents, Ronald and Catherine. Goldsberry feels like a steadily beating heart of the movie, whereas Brown delivers his usual emotional texture that he delivers weekly on This is Us. There’s an unexpected ferocity to a lot of his scenes with Tyler as they evoke issues of pressurised masculinity and living up to expectations. Brown and Goldsberry have a handful of really touching scenes together and their chemistry is so believable and it really drives home a lot of their moments together. There’s a history to these characters and, even though you don’t see it, you can feel it through their performances and it’s terrific to watch. Brown also has his “should-have-been-Oscar-nominated” scene and it helps that his partner is Russell as they both delivery eye-opening moments of character development.

Lucas Hedges also has some great little moments here and there, but that’s par for the course with him. He doesn’t have too much depth to work with aside from a few scenes in the latter part of the movie, but he really delivers and his chemistry with Russell is convincing in a way that the writing doesn’t often lend them during their first scenes together. Alexa Demie is also quite excellent as Tyler’s girlfriend Alexis, and it was a pleasure to see her light up the screen in the way she does.

If I’m being totally honest, I knew I was going to love this movie as soon as the first trailer debuted. Featuring Frank Ocean is an obvious way to get me on board, and with its beautiful colours and terrific-looking performances, I was hooked. I couldn’t stop thinking about when I was going to be able to see this movie and I’m so glad that I finally did. Now, I can’t stop thinking about when I might be able to see it next.

Shults imbues this film with such vital energy that the first half is impossible to look away from. The vibrant colours, the pounding soundtrack, and the electrifying pace make this something you’re going to want to see. That said, when it fades into the gentler second-half, it takes a minute to adjust to. There’s no longer a raucous R&B soundtrack kicking in, but the gentle effect of the score as well as Russell’s compelling screen presence. Without going into too much spoiler-talk, Harrison is gone from the second-half almost entirely and Russell picks up where he left off quite admirably. This is a brave directorial choice from Shults and it didn’t work for a lot of people, who have their preference about which half they prefer, almost as if they are two movies connected by shared characters and the impression of a shared aesthetic, but not much more. The pandemonium of the opening gives way to a gentle breeze and it’s very refreshing to see something so ambitious actually work for me. I had a problem with this type of structural switch-up during In Fabric, but Waves somehow made it work. After being so on edge for the first half, it allowed me to absorb the consequences of the plot points and understand how they seeped their way into these characters. Admittedly, I would’ve liked more of Emily with her family trying to deal with the events of the first half of the movie, but I understand why it wasn’t like that. Shults was attempting to show distance, the lack of connection after a traumatic event. It works because you assume a situation like the one the Williams’ family face is going to bring them closer together, but the movie codes itself in such a particular way that I was fine by Emily going off on adventures with Luke and dealing with things in her own way, and Shults makes sure to bring it back to its roots by the end.

I do understand why the duality turned people off though, I really do. If you loved the first half, the second half could potentially feel like a completely different film and thus a disappointment. Alternatively, if you hated the first half, the second half might feel insignificant if you haven’t adjusted to connecting with the characters just yet. Either way, I get it. But I was on board from moment one, perhaps due to my own hype for this film for about a year now, but nothing disappointed me.

Let’s talk about that soundtrack. While people thought that it was cheap or overbearing, I thought the choices really worked for getting inside the heads of Tyler and Emily. With endless access to an enormous library of music whenever they want, young people today can be dominated by the art form. If you look around on a train, most people have music plugged into their ears, letting it wash them away. The soundtrack creates another way of connecting to Tyler and Emily, as a lot of the songs describe their current emotions either in lyrical content or the musical atmosphere. I was particularly struck by the SZA inclusion as Taylor Russell leans out of a car window and experiences releases from the life she once thought she had. And the Frank Ocean content attacked me in ways I didn’t expect or ask for and I’ll be thinking about them for the longest time.

I’m not sure there’s much more to say as a lot of my feelings for this movie are those indescribable swells of emotion you get and you can’t quite explain why. I just know that I’m in love with this movie and I want to watch it every day and I’m enamoured by everything it contains. However raw and painful some of it might be, it’s produced in such a creative way that it doubles down on what you feel because it’s telling you how important it is to feel and connect even at the impossible parts of life.

I could say much more about Waves, but it’s going to take a few more rewatches to truly figure it out. I wanted to get my first impressions out there because of how passionate I am about this film, something that has touched me so deeply and I know it’s going to change the way I think about things and the way I watch films in the future. A future favourite, of that I’m certain.

I know there’s division on this movie, so let me know what you thought of it, either in the comments or on Twitter!

Twitter: Jamie_Carrick_
Letterboxd: jamiecarrick

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