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Film Review: Waves (2020)

Waves (2020 release in the UK) is an American family-drama distributed by A24. Directed by Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night), the film stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown and Taylor Russell. Wrestling athlete and student Tyler (Harrison Jr.) has to come to terms with his family struggles, the deterioration of his physical health and surprise pregnancy with his girlfriend all at once.

This film has incredible performances throughout, especially from a cast that I was fairly unknown with. Kelvin Harrison Jr is due to become huge at some point, giving one of the best performances of 2019. His portrayal of Tyler is heartbreaking and he manages to give so many layers, letting the audience see his downfall right in front of their eyes. Taylor Russell only has one other acting credit but she is also giving a superb performance here that is so beautiful to watch. I have been slowly becoming a fan of Sterling K. Brown and this film proves that he can be one of the few people to successfully jump from TV to film, doing this so effortlessly but stealing every scene that he is in.

The main concept of this story, a boy who has so much to offer to the world but everything crumbles all at one moment, is one that has so many options in terms of direction. Many directors would take the easy route and make you have one particular feeling for the leading character. Shults, however, makes it clear to the audience that Tyler isn’t a simple character with one way to feel about him. He has some bad stuff happen to him that makes you feel bad, but he also does things that we as an audience shouldn’t agree with, making him feel human despite everything that is going on about it. That moral complexity can be hard to pull off on the big screen in such a small amount of time, and yet that is the biggest strength of this film and the script.

This film has so much to communicate and so little time to do so. Whilst it is great that a filmmaker wants to be ambitious and talk about teenage struggle, alcoholism, family issues, drug and medicinal abuse, moving on from your past, abortions, racism and so much more, it leaves the film feeling very unfocused and with no real direction. This film did not need to talk about racism and just exist in an area of black people, yet they have one throwaway line and that is the commentary on that subject. Each issue seems to have one shining moment that does not connect and I am not sure if they were all handled well either.

There are several sub-plots that I loved the idea of and could have had great execution. Out of all of the messages and stories that the film wanted to tell, I feel like focusing on a few of them would have strengthened the film. The pregnancy storyline is a compelling arc for both Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis to go through, and yet by a certain point, it instead turned into an abusive relationship storyline with racism thrown into one moment. The family struggles was a strong narrative to run throughout the film, and yet it was overshadowed by alcoholism and drug abuse.

It is not only with the messages of the film that is too ambitious, but the craft of the film itself. Shults has some great ideas on enhancing the film visually, but it often comes out stylised as a music background. The overwhelming soundtrack of the film takes away from the drama, turning each scene as an individual moment rather than a cohesive narrative. Shults has fun with the ratio aspect of the film, but it goes too far and whilst I understand the shrinking ratio and the feeling of confinement, it once again separated the film rather than have it piece together cohesively, taking away from the impact the story could have had.

For the first two-thirds, the film focuses itself on one perspective. However, in the final third, when the conflict is resolved earlier than the runtime, the perspective changes from Tyler to Emily (played by Russell). The first two-thirds felt like its own movie, and this just seemed added on at the end to increase the runtime. After this sudden change that tells a completely different story and has a tone that feels almost completely separate from the first story, I unfortunately lost interest in the film overall. I did not like the storyline involving Luke (played by Lucas Hedges) which overshadowed everything that had just occurred and it felt so fake and over-dramatised in order to tell another message to overwhelm the film. I would have been more satisfied with the film if it had not spent an extra forty minutes to not even conclude the main story this film was going for.

This film has so much potential, and there are people that did end up loving it overall, but I left the cinema sadly feeling disappointed. There seemed to be a lack of focus with the direction, and I just wish the script and ideas were tightened in a little. There were a lot of great ideas, but they overall chose style over substance and the main themes of the story were lost in the distance.


Have you had a chance to see Waves? Did you enjoy the artistic direction of the film, or did it leave you cold like me? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.

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