Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry
Written by: Trey Edward Shults
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens
Running Time: 135
Date: 11/22/2019

Waves (2019)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Killer 'Waves'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Trey Edward Shults's third feature film Waves resembles a Young Adult novel, at least on the surface. It's the story of two teens dealing with a heavy amount of drama in their young lives. But unlike most YA movies, this one doesn't speak down to its audience, doesn't assume that teens are simpleminded. Instead it's a masterly effort, more fully-realized, emotionally mature, and cinematically inventive than just about anything else out there.

Waves tells the story of the Williams family, headed by stern father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and his second wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). It focuses on eldest son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and teen daughter Emily (Taylor Russell). In the film's first half, Tyler seems to have it all. He has a beautiful girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), and is a star on his high school wrestling team.

But pressure from his father begins to take its toll; Ronald is seen glaring at his son after a match, not because Tyler lost, but because he didn't win quickly enough. Tyler begins to drink and smoke pot, and he ignores a potentially career-ending injury, which leads to a fight with his girlfriend, and then an unspeakable tragedy.

In the second half, Emily more or less begins by keeping to herself; Tyler's tragedy has affected her as well. She finally has a heart-to-heart conversation with her father, and she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler's teammates, who seems smitten with her and asks her out. Shults purposely lets this sequence feel dangerous, threatening, like the other shoe could drop at any moment.

But throughout the movie Shults plays with changing aspect ratios. Things close up, close to a 1:1.33, when they go badly, and then they open up wide and expansive, 1:2.40 or thereabouts, when things become hopeful again. When Emily decides to let love in, the screen responds to her mood.

Indeed, Shults not only makes all the characters and their relationships to one another and their emotional responses feel authentically detailed and dimensional, but he also matches the filmmaking itself to their complex moods and mood changes.

In one exhilarating sequence, wherein Tyler and Alexis are driving carelessly down the road, the camera spins around in a 360-degree twirl inside the car. In another scene, Emily and Luke run through lawn sprinklers at night, and the camera follows, allowing its lens to get wet and reveling in the little stars that appear in thin air.

Nearly every scene resonates in some special way, in their combinations of performance and cinematic choices. Shults made a memorable debut with Krisha (2015), and followed it with a dark horror movie It Comes at Night (2017), and as good as those films are, they seem like warmups to this one, a beautifully conceived movie about the gray areas between choices and connections, between thought and emotion.

Lionsgate has released an excellent Blu-ray, with a fine, bold video transfer, preserving Shults's color choices, as well as a sharp audio track, highlighting the music. Bonuses include a commentary track with Shults and Harrison, a 15-minute featurette, a 30-minute on-stage Q&A with the director and cast (conducted by Time Out critic Joshua Rothkopf), and 13 minutes of deleted scenes.

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