Heartland Film Festival 2019: With ‘Waves,’ A24 has done it again
In the ever-shifting landscape of modern indie cinema, no distributor has left a greater mark on the landscape than the infamous A24. It struck out the box office with titles ranging from mind-benders like Swiss Army Man and this past summer’s Midsommar, to deep psychological horror like It Comes at Night and the infamous Hereditary. It even goes on to Oscar contenders like The Florida Project and 2016 Best Picture Winner Moonlight, which shows the bench of hits under this no-longer-fledgling studio’s belt are insane achievements.
Now enter another one surely for the record books — Waves, directed by Trey Edward Shults, follows the Williams family: the headstrong Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), self-reliant Emily (Taylor Russel), their stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and the patriarchal Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) as they live their way through the American Dream in South Florida. Tyler is fighting desperately to live up to his father’s growing expectations for his wrestling career. Emily is still trying to cope with the death of her mother… and the antics of the family cat. However, after a catastrophic series of events throws the family’s unity into peril, they’re forced to confront their worst fears about not just the people around them, but themselves.
Coming into my screening of the movie, a common descriptor I heard from members of the House was that Waves was effectively the cinematic equivalent to This is Us. For clarification, This is Us is an NBC dramedy series known for two things: soap opera-esque melodrama, and the ability to turn people into sobbing puddles of fleshy emotions. While this comparison isn’t entirely wrong, the devil lies in the fact that Waves has a sense of sincere pathos that I feel wholly surpasses the show by the guy who unleashed the dreaded Life Itself upon humanity. You genuinely root for and sympathize with the family at the core of this narrative, even as things escalate to an extreme degree.
Harrison and Russel make for charming leads whose characters go to interesting depths (if Harrison doesn’t get any awards for his work as Tyler in this movie, it’ll be the crime of the century), and Brown gives a knock-out performance in what is, at its core, a very reactionary role. Everything in this film oozes some level of humanity, from the score to the movie’s trademark 360-degree car shots, to even the aspect ratio. Much like the film’s namesake, everything in this movie has some level of motion and some level of life running independent of everything else around it. It’s utterly trance inducing.
When it comes to any cracks in the proverbial armor, it brings us back to the This is Us comparison. While I personally didn’t mind how the film plays out (largely due to its shifting forms of presentation and the performances on display), I can very easily see how that brand of storytelling could turn off some viewers, especially near the end. However, from my perspective, Waves manages to overcome that hurdle in such a manner that, melodramatic or not, still feels true to not only the characters, but the overall narrative as a whole.
Waves is a cinematic balancing act that just as easily confronts you with the psychological terrors of the modern day as much as it proves that life is worth living again. While it isn’t hard to see how some could interpret the movie’s twists and turns as melodrama, it just as easily accounts for that with a cast firing on all cylinders and a unique visual language that stands out from all the dramas we’ve gotten this year. Without any hesitation, I’d say that this movie stands to become a shiny new jewel in A24’s crown, a surefire hit when it releases worldwide on November 30, and a total achievement for all parties involved in putting this wonderful film together. It’s an utter tsunami of palpable passion.
Featured Image: Heartland
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