This is a rather sterling film (pun intended). Well, it’s more like two films, as we see a brother and sister, both with their own story to tell. Although that’s no excuse for a two hour and 15 minute picture that could have easily been 30 minutes shorter. Perhaps all those weird swirls of color they threw in that made me feel like I was on something…could’ve been edited a bit more tightly. That being said, as it ebbed and flowed, I eventually enjoyed riding this wave. It’s floating around my top 10 of the year.
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults really disappointed me with his “horror” film It Comes at Night. At least he had the sense to take a young actor from that (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and put him in the starring role here. And what a weird coincidence that Harrison was so impressive earlier this year, also playing an intelligent, accomplished high school athlete having some problems (in Luce, which is the best movie of the year that nobody saw).
This story follows an affluent family in Florida. Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the wrestling champ. His sister Emily (Taylor Russell of Escape Room) is a bit on the shy side. Loving mom Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) seems to realize her husband Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a bit tough on the kids. In one of the smart things Shults does in this, things aren’t over the top, or revealed right away. You observe subtleties that tell you a lot. When Ronald walks into the kitchen and kisses Catharine, she’s not that receptive. When dad goes into his son’s room to lecture him, the boy’s face is just yearning to scream “Get out of my room and let me do my homework!!!”
It’s also a smart choice that when we see him being too tough on the boy, the way some fathers of high school athletes can be, it’s never so extreme. As they spar and lift weights, he seems concerned about the boy’s shoulder injury and checks on it. He can be playful during their workouts. In an early scene, they have an arm wrestling match where he goads his son in a fun manner that puts a smile on our face. We don’t think (at that moment) that he’s a jerk overpowering his smaller son at a restaurant table.
Tyler has a girlfriend (Alexa Demie). I was bummed to see her dad was played by an actor I love (Clifton Collins Jr., who has a much better role in Honey Boy), because he’s not given a lot to do.
The movie touches on a variety of social issues (toxic masculinity, drug use, and things I can’t list without spoiling). Yet it never feels like it’s preaching to us, and it’s like we’re watching a story you can see happening to anyone. It’s also nice how the camera will spend more time with certain characters, so we really get a feel for the range of emotions they’re experiencing. That being said, Harrison is quickly becoming one of my favorite young actors. In Luce, he plays a manipulator so well. In this, his performance runs a gamut of emotions. He can be angry, vulnerable, funny, cocky. You see it all in the close ups of his face.
Now, I thought it looked amateurish the way the filmmakers behind Moonlight did certain things with the camera in an attempt to be artsy. A few times watching Waves, I thought of that picture. And Shults has better results with his innovative stuff (credit also should go to cinematographer Drew Daniels). A lot of times as the edits were done in a frantic manner, with loud music…it gave you the type of anxiety you should be feeling at that moment. Sometimes that’s a camera spinning around to show everyone singing loudly in a car. Other times, it might be the lights of a police car, or the strobelights of a party blasting music. I should’ve figured something was up when the opening credits listed a “colorist.” I didn’t have a clue as to what that was.
[Side note: somebody should play Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” with this movie and see if they match up].
It’s interesting that the story goes from showing the brother’s story to the little sister’s. I’m guessing some won’t like that transition, but I thought it was genius.
There are two scenes with the dad and daughter, that will just devaste you. It’s like they took my heart in a half nelson and pinned it down for 3 seconds (I figured I’d try to throw in at least one wrestling analogy). By the way, wrestling seems like such a good vehicle to use on screen, and it seldom is. I enjoyed the movie Win Win (Paul Giamatti, Bobby Cannavalle), Vision Quest (Matthew Modine), The Wrestler (Mickey Rourke), Fighting With My Family, and one of my all-time favorites — The World According to Garp (although wrestling was a very small part of the film).
In the second half of the movie, when they focus on Emily, it’s a joy to watch her blossom. She begins an awkward romance with a fellow wrestler (Lucas Hedges), and we get to see a little bit of the family drama he’s dealing with.
The movie had a few contrivances and there are a handful of things we’ve seen done in other films; although even those, many were done better here. One example of that would be a text message exchange. Another would be a fight the couple has in the car.
That doesn’t mean you won’t roll your eyes when you hear some of the cliche speeches.
The score by Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross is always great, and the hypnotic sounds they created were also. Although the best musical moment was the closing scene, with the Alabama Shakes “Sound & Color.”
This movie can turn into a conventional melodrama at times, and there are moments that should’ve been dialed back a bit. Yet there are so many wonderful moments, people should go see it. And everyone in this film deserves an Oscar nomination (aside from Lucas Hedges, in one of his rare performances where I wish someone else was cast).
It’s one of the better films of the year. 4 stars out of 5. And yeah, even in artsy movies getting Oscar buzz, they have barfing scenes. There were three of them in this, with two different characters. Stop it already, Hollywood!!