WAVES

HIGH SCHOOL MISERY PORN DROWNED BY ITS AESTHETIC

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Ashley Teresa
28th June 2020

One of the most anticipated releases in the unpredictable Australian theatrical calendar has been 'Waves', a new drama from writer/director Trey Edward Shults. After the one-two punch of his first features 'Krisha' and 'It Comes at Night', the success 'Waves' was set to receive based simply on its behind-the-scenes personnel felt like a no-brainer.

It's such a shame that the film that should've cemented Shults' status as a great director is such a fall from creative grace.

'Waves' attempts to tell the story of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr, 'The High Note'), a popular wrestler for his high school and the pride and joy of his wealthy family (I say "attempts" because 'Waves' shies away from developing any real character complexity beyond basic human emotions at every possible opportunity). Despite his star status, gorgeous girlfriend (Alexa Demie, TV's 'Euphoria') and booming social life, the pressure to excel from his overbearing father (Sterling K. Brown, 'Frozen II') drives Tyler to extreme stress and dangerous behaviour, including stealing his father's painkillers to treat an injury he'd rather ignore. Tyler's behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, culminating in a tragedy that impacts not only him but those around him.

Except, we never really see just how it impacts him. The most fundamental issue with 'Waves' is its narrative structure. The film undergoes a massive shift in the second half, becoming a new film entirely in an attempt to explore the tragedy from the other side and how it affects those in its wake. It's a worthy idea, but after having spent basically no time with Tyler's little sister Emily (Taylor Russell, 'Escape Room') in the first half, dedicating the entire second half of the film to her character eviscerates any incentive to care about her beyond trying to figure out how Tyler's story ends (a plot device, I might add, which is very quickly wrapped up). What's worse is that this all plays out like an extended Kodak ad, filled with chunks of conversations the audience has been dropped into halfway through, in slice-of-life moments that require us to fill in the gaps. Audiences definitely do not need exposition dumps in order to make sense of the material, but we don't know enough about Emily before the tragedy to see how her brother's choices have actually changed her, beyond her learning to forgive and forget and finding solace in a new love interest (Lucas Hedges, 'Boy Erased'). It's a case of Shults wanting to have his cake and eat it too from a storytelling perspective, but it just does not work.

'WAVES' TRAILER

Of course, I must give credit where credit is due. Harrison Jr tries his best with the material he's given, and for the most part plays moments of intense drama so well that it's easy to forget the terrible film surrounding him. Other times, however, these moments come off as hilarious. What also hurts Harrison Jr's performance is just how unbalanced everyone else is, playing their characters on much more subdued levels which, at times, makes Harrison Jr appear like he's in a completely different film. Russell brings a pain and weariness to her character as a girl forced to grow up too soon through the mistakes of others, but this is completely overtaken, for some reason, by Hedge's character arc. I'm sure there's a great performance from Russell in here, but the film goes out of its way to make sure we never find out. 'Waves' spends so much of its runtime trying to make a number of different stories important but never has the attention to give any of them a proper beginning or payoff, instead leaving them to tread water as Shults picks up another plotline.

Perhaps the reason for Shults' harebrained storytelling is because his focus is somewhere else entirely: the visuals. 'Waves' is every aesthetic blog's dream, with trendy costuming, changing aspect ratios, gorgeous light leaks, a neon colour palette and a camera that never stops moving. It's the very definition of an empty-calorie film, where gorgeous visuals are given the task of carrying the entire affair without much substance elsewhere. What makes 'Waves' so much worse than the average empty-calorie film, however, is how it thinks it is knocking both its cinematography and its storytelling out of the park, giving the film an unbearable air of pretension. Add to this the fact that Shults doesn't know when to stop moving the damn camera, and while 'Waves' has its moments of visual beauty, the concept of having too much of a good thing springs to mind (seriously, how many times does the camera need to rotate 360 degrees on a car full of teenagers just vibing?). There are exceptions to this where films are both visually stunning and narratively rich (see: Spike Jonze's 2013 drama 'Her'), but 'Waves' is not one of them. It'll be a shame to see it hailed as some sort of masterpiece simply because it's easy to dazzle audiences with some pretty visuals.

'Waves' is so busy trying to be a future indie classic with its camera acrobatics and needle drops that it forgets to give any impetus to care about the supposedly profound stories it's trying to tell.

And then there's the needle drops. I'm not above a memorable movie moment punctuated by a great track selection, but 'Waves' takes this concept way too far, and it's never a good sign when a film's most memorable moments are only that way because of an audience's prior attachment to a song. One particular moment Kanye West's 'I Am A God' is actually impossible to take seriously because of the track's use.

'Waves', while certainly ambitious, is so busy trying to be a future indie classic with its camera acrobatics and needle drops that it forgets to give any impetus to care about the supposedly profound stories it's trying to tell, instead coasting on its stylistic flairs and hoping these will distract from how shallow its writing is, making the 135-minute run time incredibly laborious. By his own admission, Shults modelled his film on the two-part structure of Frank Ocean's 'Blonde', an album which is featured prominently in the film. What audiences get instead is the cinematic equivalent of putting the album on while having a cry in the shower, a deep dive into misery porn, yet 'Waves' is a far less rewarding experience than just doing the real thing yourself.

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