It doesn’t happen very often. A film comes along that doesn’t just touch a personal nerve but resonates with just about everybody who watches it. And which tells its story with such compassion, consummate skill and devastating impact that it leaves you breathless. Yet somehow it slips under the radar almost unnoticed, only receiving the most cursory nod when the awards season comes along. It’s random and unpredictable – just like the lives portrayed on the screen.
Which is exactly what’s happened with Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. A nod from the Spirit Awards here, a trophy from the Gotham awards there, but nothing from the Globes or the Oscars. No matter. That doesn’t prevent it from being a devastating piece of work that’s so much more than the powerful domestic drama it seems from its trailer. The premise is simple, centring on a hard-working, African American suburban family destined to succeed, mainly because of the determination of dad Ronald (Sterling K Brown). But his good intentions turn him into a domineering figure as far as son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jnr) is concerned, so the teenager conceals an injury that stands in the way of him fulfilling his potential. It’s a decision that costs him dearly, sending down a self-destructive road. By contrast, younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who could easily have followed suit, finds herself heading in a totally different direction.
A film of two halves, then, and one that gives more than an inkling of where it’s headed early on. “Love is patience, love is kind, but love also forgets wrongs” preaches the local minister, marking the start of a journey full of heartbreak, tests, agonies, redemption, trust and, yes, love, for both the entire family and the audience. Its truths are universal and personal. While Tyler’s story is tragic and shattering, Emily’s offers more hope and ray of light through the gloom. Like anybody else, they’re both a heartbeat away from having their lives changed forever and having little or no control over it.
It’s intense, heart-wrenching stuff and made all the more so by the way Shults approaches the story. He credits Harrison Jnr, who he also directed on It Comes At Night, as being the inspiration for getting what had been a long-standing idea onto the page, so much so that he tailored it for the actor and an African American family. Harrison Jnr has since described himself as being “blown away” by the eventual script and it’s hard to imagine that audiences will feel otherwise. As the characters on the screen suffer from those much quoted “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, we become totally involved, more than mere witnesses. It’s intensified by the camerawork: as Tyler’s fortunes decline, the lens seems to tighten around him and his family, focusing our gaze and thoughts. Precision editing, allowing events to sink in, and a tremendous score reinforce this even further.
The performances are of the highest order, with Harrison Jnr and Taylor Russell outstanding, in a movie with truth and life experience at its heart and which never strikes a false note. And a film that promises much, not just for this year but perhaps the entire decade.
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Drama, Romance | Cert: 15 | Universal Studios| UK, 17 January 2020 | Dir. Trey Edward Shults | Kelvin Harrison Jnr, Taylor Russell, Sterling K Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges.