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Waves (2019)

Simon Boccanegra
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Set against the vibrant landscape of South Florida, and featuring an astonishing ensemble of award-winning actors and breakouts alike, Waves traces the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family--led by a well-intentioned but domineering father--as they navigate love, forgiveness and coming together in the aftermath of a loss. From acclaimed director Trey Edward Shults, Waves is a heartrending story about the universal capacity for compassion and growth even in the darkest of times. With Sterling K. Brown, Alexa Demie, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Taylor Russell. 

This is one I hope finds more of an audience over time. It was very well reviewed but had a microscopic box-office take. I think it's a better film than some other intimate dramas of 2019 that had a similar critic/audience trajectory.  

It is an ambitious movie and an unusual one in style and structure. The song that plays over the closing credits is called "Sound & Color," and that could be an alternate title for the film, which is aesthetically beautiful apart from everything else. Shults's camera is very restless, often revolving 360 degrees to take in a scene, like the beam of a lighthouse. The use of music is nearly symphonic in its continuity, between the electronic score by Reznor and Ross (of The Social Network) and a boatload of popular songs, from Dinah Washington to Animal Collective, many of them used diegetically on car radios or at parties. The carefully plotted moments of stillness and silence thus stand out starkly. 

The script throws a lot of heavy issues at the viewer: domestic violence, grave sports injuries, toxic masculinity, prescription drug abuse, teenage drinking, unplanned pregnancy and reproductive rights, harsh sentencing for African-Americans, online bullying, marital discord, terminal illness, grief. Even for a 135-minute film, it's a very full plate. The interesting thing about it is that it doesn't push for emotional catharsis. It's a well-worked-out script that is directed with a certain observant distance. I could imagine someone else finding it too cool or detached, but I actually appreciated that it was just showing me, in a plausible way, a string of misfortunes and bad decisions that culminate in a tragedy, and then a recovery that is equally plausible, not all better but life going on. There is grist for two or three melodramas here, but the director and actors aren't exhorting us to cry.    

There is wonderful work from the whole ensemble, with special praise for Russell, luminous as the family's quiet daughter, who takes over the film halfway through and brings it and herself back to life, and Brown as the loving but overwhelming father. In his early scenes as the daughter's new love interest, Hedges nails a particular kind of naturally sweet person who, attempting to make the best possible impression on someone new, almost overshoots the mark.

Edited by Simon Boccanegra
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I saw this the other night at a local university. I thought I was going to suffocate from the pretentiousness. If they had cut some of the "artistic" BS shots, the movie could have been 30 minutes shorter.

The 360-extreme close-up scenes were nauseating. 

If this had been about an affluent white family, the story would have been considered trite and nothing we haven't seen before.

Let's not forget that Tyler killed his pregnant girlfriend, and there were plenty of texts to show how angry he was that she was going to keep the baby. I would imagine that entered into his sentencing. 

Both Emily and her boyfriend had parents with addiction issues, and they were aware of how horrible it was, but they still smoked and drank and did drugs. It was kind of depressing.

The movie was paired with "Harriet," which was loads better (although not without its own problems).


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I'm the other way around. Loved Waves; thought Harriet was not worthy of its subject. That is not a judgment I'm happy about reaching, because Kasi Lemmons's first film (Eve's Bayou) is a minor classic. I remember seeing it when it was new in 1997 and being excited about this actress I knew from Silence of the Lambs and other films making such an assured writing/directing debut. Harriet, more than 20 years later...not so assured.  

I think it was a good idea in Waves to elide the legal business, taking us directly from the arrest to the family going to hear the sentencing. But damn. He entered a guilty plea and he still got life without possibility of parole until he had served 30 years? Teenagers who have actually planned and committed murders that followed torturing the victim for hours have done better than that (all four of Shanda Sharer's killers are free now). So I think the (possible) racial element was effectively unstated there. They don't dwell on it, but it was in my mind.  

Edited by Simon Boccanegra
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On 2/23/2020 at 10:34 PM, SmithW6079 said:

If they had cut some of the "artistic" BS shots, the movie could have been 30 minutes shorter.

Agree.  I definitely zoned out during the second half.  The movie wasn't for me but the acting was top notch.  I hope Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison Jr. become big stars. 

I also agree that the sentencing seemed very harsh.

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