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TIFF 2019: Waves

“Life doesn’t end at the worst moment, it keeps going”
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Forget This is Us ­­— Waves is another family drama that tugs on all the heart strings. Courtesy of Tiff | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED
Forget This is Us ­­— Waves is another family drama that tugs on all the heart strings. Courtesy of Tiff | IMAGE HAS BEEN CROPPED

Waves, Trey Edward Shults’  new feature-length drama, will leave you speechless. A stunned silence was followed by a three-minute-long standing ovation at the end of this visual masterpiece.

If you enjoyed Euphoria, Mid90s, Moonlight, or Ladybird, you are sure to love A24’s newest powerhouse. Waves is a whimsical drama about an African-American family trying to navigate their way through the complexities of adulthood: joy, love, loss, and grief.

In the same vein of Wong Kar-wai’s classic Chungking Express, Waves is tastefully split into two acts: the first is centered on Tyler, impeccably played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., while  the second act is led by his quiet younger sister Emily, played by Taylor Russell. Tyler — no doubt channeling Frank Ocean with his buzzed-cut bleach-blonde hair — is in his senior year of high school.

Tyler has a bright future ahead of him as the star on the school’s wrestling team and with a beautiful cheerleader girlfriend, Alexis, who is played by Euphoria star Alexa Demie. Sterling K. Brown, known from the show This is Us, is phenomenal as Ronald,  Tyler’s intense father,  who is consistently pushing him past his limits.

When Tyler steals his dad’s pain killers to cope with a critical shoulder injury, his seemingly perfect family begins to unravel. After a series of heated arguments fueled with booze and drugs, the two get into a physical fight, creating a palpable sense of anxiety down that travels down the viewer’s spine.

It is during the climax of the film that Waves entered the realm of sheer brilliance. The first act  was shot beautifully in wide-angle lens with seamless continuity between shots.

This shift is nothing short of pure genius, indicating that everything has changed and that the family’s life must now be seen through a new lens. The title, Waves, fits perfectly as the camera’s movements often replicate a wave: a motion effortlessly reflecting and imprinting itself the next movement — or in this case, shot.

The film is enhanced by a score featuring Tyler the Creator, A$AP Rocky, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and couple of Frank Ocean ballads that never fail to make your heart sink. The cinematography is reminiscent of Euphoria’s ability to showcase the journey of the characters through the finesse of the camera and colourful mise-en-scène neon mood lighting.

The second act begins when Tyler is sentenced to life in prison. The family attempts to interpret their loss as the camera swiftly switches back to wide-angle shots.

The film’s focus turns to Emily as she navigates high school as a racialized teenage girl. She encounters Luke, played by the A24 veteran Lucas Hedges, and viewers watch the pair fall in love. The couple both have complex pasts and soothe their pain in each other’s arms. Emily’s uplifting love story contrasts the first act and helps the viewer unwind from the panicked state elicited with Tyler’s story.

At the post-film discussion with the audience, Shults noted, “I’m trying to find the balance…  to get you closer to them in this emotionally immersive experience.” Ultimately, in the end, the family is broken, but the bonds of their love remain unbroken. As he eloquently said at the premiere, “Life doesn’t end at the worst moment, it keeps going. It’s about getting through the other side of it and healing.”