One measure of a gripping Telluride film, for me, is catching a 10:30 pm showing (and they always start late) and maintaining an absolute drill-bit focus on each and every aspect for 135 minutes, and then muttering to myself “yeah, that was something else” as I walked back to the pad in near total darkness (using an iPhone flashlight app to see where I was walking) around 1 am.
This is what happened last night between myself and Trey Edward Shults‘ Waves (A24, 11.1).
Set in an affluent ‘burb south of Miami, Waves is a meditative, deep-focus tragedy about an African-American family coping with the effects of high-pressure expectations and toxic masculinity.
The bringer of these plague motivators is dad Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), the owner of a construction business and one tough, clenched, hard-ass dude. He injects all of this and more into 18 year-old son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a somewhat cocky high-school wrestling team star who’s looking at a top-notch college and a go-getter future.
Watching on the sidelines is Tyler’s kid sister Emily (Taylor Russell), a quiet, keep-to- herself type. Their stepmom Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) is a gentle smoother-over, and a counterweight to Ronald’s aggressive approach to parenting.
Tyler’s situation is aggravated when he tears a shoulder muscle and is told by a doctor that he has to stop wrestling. Tyler naturally decides to hide this from Ronald. But the real flash point occurs when Tyler’s spunky-hot girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) finds herself pregnant, and announces that she wants to “keep it.” It?
Tyler freaks (sudden fatherhood at 18 being more or less synonymous with economic enslavement and close to a death sentence in terms of college and opportunity), Alexis freaks right back and blocks him, he responds by snorting and drinking and driving off, and then things come to a horrific climax at a party.
And so ends Part One of Waves, which is a cleanly organized two-parter. And then begins Part Two, which is mostly about Emily quietly coping with the aftermath of Tyler’s tragedy, and Ronald and Catherine all but shut down and incapacitated by it.
The bulk of this section is about Emily meeting and then going out with Luke (Manchester By The Sea‘s Lucas Hedges, somewhat heavier and wearing the same tennisball haircut he had in Mid90s and Ben Is Back). They gradually start going on missions together (including a visit to Weeki Wachee, which I haven’t been to since I was 14) and talking about their buried backstories, in particular Luke’s dying ex-druggie dad.
And then finally Ronald and Emily have “the talk” in which Ronald more or less admits that he pushed the wrong buttons with Tyler and that he’s trying to forgive himself, etc.
I saw and appreciated Shults’ Krisha, an intense alcohol-and-drugs family drama, but skipped It Comes At Night because I tend to side-step horror that doesn’t appear to be part of the “elevated” Ari Aster, Robert Eggers or Jennifer Kent sensibility. But Waves has convinced me that Shults is an extra-level, X-factor helmer.
Shults not only directed but wrote Waves, and without his emotional and stylistic imprints it could have been just another tragic teen drama. Bad stuff suddenly happens, we have to collect ourselves and try to heal and forgive, etc. But there’s a certain honed-down clarity and emotional frankness that elevates it, and the acting is right there on the plate and vibrating the floorboards in every scene.
There’s something a teeny bit underwhelming about the softer and gentler second half, but it’s certainly worth catching regardless. I would go so far as to call Waves an essential watch.
Waves is definitely the second-best film of the Telluride Film Festival, right after Marriage Story. It will gather more steam when it plays Toronto. Is it an Oscar player? It is as far as Taylor Russell is concerned, yeah. A solid Best Supporting Actress contender. Otherwise Waves might be a Spirit Awards thing. Too early to tell.