WAVES Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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WAVES Review

Tony watches the tide.

Waves is an extraordinary movie, in that early on, you expect it to go a very particular way, and it wrong-foots you, not because it doesn’t go that way, but because when it reaches the end-point you expect, it doesn’t let that be the end. It welcomes you into the life of a modern family of colour in South Florida, but it has no truck with the stereotypes you think it’s painting. It goes beyond them, to find something harder, something better, something more real and less cliched than a promising young man whose life goes wrong.

At first though, it’ll take you on that journey, and make you realise how easy it is for the dreams we encourage in our young people to be torn down by simple circumstance, by conflict, by fear and anger and the brick-by-brick building of a prison, with opportunity on the other side of the wall.

Tyler Williams is a high school senior, played with a camera-commanding intensity by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Supported by his reasonable, eloquent and self-expressive father, Ronald (played by the equally intense Sterling K Brown), Tyler is a leading light of his wrestling team, and his life seems blessed not with destiny, but with determination, power, skill and the will to win, to become something big in his chosen field, and to love his girlfriend Alexis Lopez forever, barring accidents.

Oh, those accidents.

We won’t spoil it for you up front, but accidents are strewn in Tyler’s path, some of which dismantle his life’s dreams without any wrongdoing on his part, and others which could be overcome, but with which he struggles, blowing up in frustration and anger and making himself a part of the problem, to everybody’s detriment. The chain of events we witness in Waves more or less paints a picture of ‘the decline and fall of an African-American man’ in 2019, and more than just showing us an individual who goes off the rails, they give us a glimpse of exactly how much of a minefield simply growing up is for young men of colour in today’s America. There are some dark realities avoided – there’s only one run-in with the police in this movie, though when it comes, it comes like the death of at least Tyler’s hopes and dreams – but otherwise, you could almost spitball the descent of Tyler from his aspirational, play-the-game, follow-the-rules teenage self into a version of himself that has no hope, no escape, and no ability to turn back the clock on his destiny, and be right. The reason Waves delivers more than this spitballed plot is because it zings, not really with lofty dialogue – Ronald, his father, is by far the most eloquent character in the movie – but with that sense of realism that can make your mouth go dry as you watch. You feel drawn into Tyler’s life and pain, so that even while, during a couple of scenes, you want to stop him, sit him down, make him breathe and think through his actions before he makes a monumental mistake, you ache for him, and you understand his panic, his potential, the theft of his dreams, the enclosing of him in walls of increasing hopelessness as first a dream then a freedom then a hope of change are denied him, sometimes by accident, sometimes by his own instinctive reactions. You feel his desperation through the screen, which is what we mean when we say Harrison Jr’s performance is intense. It’s particularly effective as we see a lot of his descent through non-verbal action – while there are at least two fights with Alexis (played with less intensity, but a fluidity which absolutely convinces through the screen, by Alexa Demie), which become furious shouting matches, the row that takes a possible reconciliation and turns it into something else instead happens by text message, Tyler’s reactions to news getting more rapid, more unrestrained, more ALL CAPS by the second, and it shouldn’t work, but it absolutely does. Underscored by vivid facial acting, his thought process visibly swirls in him, punched out onto keys as he becomes more and more unreasonable, sensing his freedom being walled in by control of a situation being taken away from him. The truth might be of course that he never had control of that situation in the first place, but we see the emotional effect on him and feel it like a constriction in the chest.

When Tyler’s story winds up and up and up to a horrifying climax, it’s possible that mainstream western audiences (which is, perhaps patronisingly, to say white audiences) expect that to be the end of this movie. But it isn’t. It’s truer to life than that. His family go on, and the storytelling shifts its focus fairly radically to them and their ongoing trials, after the events that take Tyler at the very least to the margins of the story. In particular we refocus on his younger sister, Emily, who walks and rides her bike and drives her car through this movie with an incredibly natural light touch, never making points too firmly, but saying things and doing things that feel like natural outgrowths of her personality and reaction to the events of her life. We see her react to the apparently ungovernable tide of social media opinion on the events surrounding her brother, and step away from that slick of toxicity. We see her get a boyfriend, another wrestler, and we see their relationship develop. We rather expect something to go amiss with that, but instead, the movie takes us down an impressive healing alleyway, first for her boyfriend, and then eventually, through re-connection and communication with her dad, Ronald, for her too, leaving her in perhaps the most centred place of all the characters in the movie, able to act as a source of positivity, energy, focus and forward motion for everyone, a rebuilder of hopes and unity after the dark times the family has endured.

Waves is visually gorgeous throughout, taking full advantage of its South Florida setting to look damn good. But more than that, the performances that Trey Edward Shults (who both writes and directs the film) brings out of his leading actors make the characters thoroughly believable, meaning you buy in, strap in, and can’t look away till you’re released at the end of the movie. It feels at first like the story of a life destroyed (and indeed in some respects, it’s absolutely that – there’s a death in this movie, and it’s tragic, sealing three fates immediately and changing the lives of everyone else), but by pushing on to tell a whole other story in the aftermath of that, it visibly rejects the notion that decline and fall is somehow a destiny of young people of colour in modern America, choosing instead to show the strength, the emotional intelligence, the communicative eloquence and the importance of togetherness and family and hope in each other that allows families, and particularly families of colour, to move past the tougher things life throws at them. It’s both a depiction of a spiral of negativity in the case of one young man, and a pathway back to hope for a future for his family.

Waves will absolutely put you through the wringer when you watch it. That’s a reason to watch it, rather than a reason to avoid it. Check it out, breathe in the beauty, feel the despair, recoil at the results, and then, with Emily as your guide, find your way to the positivity and hope at the end. You’ll go through the whole journey, but you’ll come out of it brightened by that hope.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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