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Review: Waves

November 22, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The third film from director Trey Edward Shultz, following up his acclaimed debut Krisha and his divisive horror film It Comes at NightWaves is an electric piece of filmmaking that is frequently bold and audacious in its stylistic choices.

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an all-American teenager who has the façade of a perfect life. He’s on his high school’s wrestling team, and has a steady girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). But his father (Sterling K. Brown) pushes him a little too hard, keeping him on a gruelling training schedule.

Tyler starts to crack under the pressure and abuse prescription drugs, leading to a shocking turn of events that propels us into the film’s second half, which shifts the focus mainly to Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and another classmate named Luke (Lucas Hedges).

The film switches aspect ratios at different points in the story, a device that works brilliantly in harmony with the material. Cinematographer Drew Daniels is in complete command of his craft, using lighting and framing choices to immerses us in the world of the film, with his camera often spinning around to dizzying effect. The film’s sonic landscape is equally all encompassing, featuring a rap-heavy soundtrack that is tied together by a new score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. This includes the best ever use of Kanye West’s “I Am A God,” with the propulsive, grandiose nature of the track providing the perfect accompaniment for the film’s most intense sequence.

The narrative structure is also unique, with the film’s first and second halves both feeling distinct. The first half is pure exhilaration, sending us hurtling towards a startling middle sequence that gives way to the second half, which is much quieter as it focuses on healing. A powerful parallel is drawn between the film’s two halves with an emotionally wrenching scene near the end that ties them together, framed in a way that directly mirrors a moment between different characters earlier in the film.

In addition to Harrison Jr.’s star turn in the lead, Waves also features brilliant supporting work by Brown, and strong turns from Russell and Hedges. This is a very dark and powerful drama about the before and after of tragedy, that keeps going unexpected places. It pulsates with brilliant uses of sound and colour, including amazing music and stunning cinematography.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Waves is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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