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MOVIES: Waves (LFF 2019) - Review

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A24 favourite Trey Edward Shults returns on the back of the unique horror film It Comes at Night with another powerful, emotionally charged and important drama Waves that simply tells a story that need to be told, one about love and forgiveness in the aftermath of a tragedy that rocks a well-off, suburban family to its core, shattering it irreversibly. It’s a film that you know what’s coming but can’t tear your eyes away from the screen as the horrific event unfolds before your eyes, using the middle of the film to pay off on all the buildup that’s gone into fleshing out the characters by that point.

Most of the character work is subtle, we spend much of the film’s runtime following characters in cars singing along to music in various stages of soberity, and music itself plays a key role in this film to the point where it almost feels like a secondary character in its own right. The modern, on point soundtrack features music by Animal Collective and Frank Ocean, and more often than not there are several scenes where the music dominates with minimal dialogue on display, yet the silence of the characters is felt as their lack of words ring true.

Performances by a mixture of both new and veteran stars alike, Waves manages to find the right mix of talent. We see enough of Kelvin Harrison Jr, Taylor Russell, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Sterling K. Brown as a family to get a feel for their dynamic and understand their strengths and weaknesses. Brown’s Ronald is well meaning but keeps pushing Tyler harder and harder to achieve a career for himself, and Alexa Demie plays a free-spirited Alexis, Tyler’s girlfriend. There’s an instant connection there at the start of the film that begins to unravel the longer the film progresses on, and it’s interesting to watch the different actions that both Tyler and Emily take in their respective relationships, with the film spending the first half with one sibling and the second with the other. It’s Russell who is arguably the film’s MVP, but given Harrison Jr. and Brown’s compelling performances it’s hard to call a true standout, and A24 regular Lucas Hedges impresses giving an awkward but innocent performance as Emily’s love interest, Luke that drew plenty of laughs from a kind crowd.

Waves is visually astounding, backed up by brilliant cinematography by Drew Daniels. When there is gaps in the soundtrack it is instead replaces by original score by The Social Network team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who give Waves the raw power that it needs. It’s a textbook example as to how showing over telling is a better approach, and the way the film uses lighting before, during and after the key – unforgettable – party sequence that separates main the two acts gives it almost a noir vibe, a stark contrast from the lighter colours of the drama’s happier moments, but that makes sense given the film is at its darkest point in those stages. I preferred Emily’s story compared to Tyler’s, but both are equally compelling, and Ronald’s arc is used as a nice bridge between the two.

Although the film itself could have arguably lost half an hour to its pacing and still have been fine, it felt important enough to simply spend time with the characters when nothing else was taking place, with the audience developing a sense of familiarity to them and attachment. Flaws and all, they feel like honest, real and human people that call the landscape of South Florida their home, with Shultz making sure that the story would almost feel odd were it to take place anywhere else.

Waves is another addition to A24’s fine filmography and stands as one of the best films of the London Film Festival so far. It shows how important it is to not let hate consume you, and as a late entry to the festival added after the initial announcement, it leaves a mark in a way that won't easily be forgotten. It's a true coming of age story not unlike Andrea Arnold's American Honey that simply commands your attention from start to finish.

Waves is airing at the London Film Festival in October and you can watch a trailer for the film here.

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