Waves – The kids aren’t alright in this stunning family drama

Bursting onto the screen in a flurry of swirling camera moves and fast-paced cuts, Waves (2019) quickly introduces us to the riotous world of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an ambitious high school athlete who goes about his busy day of training, studying, and spending time with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) and family. It’s a joyous opening, writer-director Trey Edward Shults instantly pulling us into the story and placing us right alongside Tyler, making us feel the very vibrations of the thumping, exciting music that accompanies these carefree moments. Yet there’s something overwhelming about all of this too, the breathtaking pace and ceaseless movements often disorientating – a feeling that Tyler can relate to as the pressure of his chaotic lifestyle begins to weigh on him. It’s inevitable that things can’t last. However, when cracks do start to appear, Tyler finds that the consequences not only threaten his once perfect future, but that they also send ripples throughout the rest of his family in unexpected, devastating ways.

Those familiar with Shults’ first feature, Krisha (2015), will recognise the similarities between that and Waves almost immediately (least of all because of the brief cameo from Krisha Fairchild herself in those opening scenes). A beautifully constructed drama steeped in realism, Krisha is also about a family unit coming apart at the seams, unspoken issues between them bubbling away under the surface, before they’re suddenly aired over the Thanksgiving turkey. Yet with Waves, Shults has taken a step in other directions as well, his ambitious narrative mixing together ideas exploring identity, ambition and masculinity, as well as that ever-present theme of family. More specifically, Waves poignantly portrays the relationship between Tyler and his father (Sterling K. Brown) – a kind yet stern man who pushes Tyler at every turn, whether it’s when they’re training together, or when he’s simply monitoring his schoolwork. But keeping his Dad happy seems to be an impossible task, Tyler finding himself studying late into the night and having to pop pills just so he can stick to that busy schedule. And soon, Tyler’s keeping secrets and making all the wrong choices, fighting to stay on top of that very high pedestal his Dad has placed him on.

Father and son: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in Waves...
Father and son: Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in Waves…

With a tragic, sweeping story like that, you can almost imagine the Hollywood version – all bombastic scenes filled with screaming, weeping and fists through walls. While Waves does have these big moments (and then some), Shults executes his narrative in subtler, more poignant ways, eschewing the usual dramatic conventions to get to the very heart of his characters and their experiences. He takes great care to focus on the realism within every frame, preferring to show us the smaller, family moments that he knows will resonate with all of us. Tyler and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) quietly hugging late one night. Their Dad frantically driving around. Emily listening to her parents argue behind a door. Shults gives these scenes as much importance as the larger story at play, allowing us to see ourselves in the family and giving this an emotional depth that is rarely felt onscreen. It’s a refreshing approach, Shults’ beautiful writing and characterisation perfectly complemented by the stunning performances he coaxes from his cast, in particular Harrison Jr. who flawlessly portrays Tyler’s agonising fall from grace. That he keeps Tyler wholly relatable, despite the dubious choices he makes, is an amazing achievement, especially when his actions have dire consequences further down the line.

Cinematographer Drew Daniels matches Shults’ engaging tale with a mesmerising style, each scene shot in a way that injects Waves with a pulsing, thrilling energy. Employing different aspect ratio sizes, the film constantly switches from wider, full-screen shots to a 4:3 ratio or cramped letterbox, this technique reflecting the mounting pressure on Tyler and his crumbling mental state, the walls almost literally closing in on him. In the same way, that kinetic camera is often dictated by what’s happening in the narrative, those exhilarating moves becoming increasingly frantic as things start to fall apart. That we’re placed directly alongside Tyler during these moments makes them particularly potent, 360 degree shots and sweeping long takes putting us right amongst the action, even when we don’t want to be. These astonishing visuals are made more effective by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ incredible score, as well as tracks from the likes of Frank Ocean, Animal Collective and Kendrick Lamar, all of which are perfectly executed to give scenes greater impact. From the happier strains of the opening sequence, to the later songs that almost act like a thumping heartbeat as Tyler cracks under pressure, the music ramps up the tension throughout, so much so that you’re often on the edge of your seat without even realising it.

Making Waves: Taylor Russell as Emily...
Making Waves: Taylor Russell as Emily…

It’s a shame then that the latter part of Shults’ film suffers a little, the story losing momentum as he takes it in a different, albeit unexpected, direction. While that compelling visual style still remains (aspect ratio changes and all), the breathless pacing that makes the first part so invigorating disappears – something that we do miss as it slowly heads towards its finale. But even with this change of tempo, Waves remains a fascinating film, Shults’ narrative becoming all the more poignant as he explores the long-term effects that Tyler’s actions have on the whole family. It is also Taylor Russell’s striking performance in this second half that makes it work so well, her wonderfully emotional portrayal keeping the plot engaging and grounded, preventing it from slipping into conventional drama territory when further disasters appear on the horizon. Yet it is her scenes opposite Sterling K. Brown that are the most touching, their astounding performances adding a real authenticity to these later moments. As Shults draws the film to a close, it’s their relationship that we connect with the most, Shults using them to turn a sentimental ending into a somewhat hopeful one – a conclusion that brings his story full circle, and which leaves us wondering what happens to the family after the film’s final, tender frames.

After his previous two films, Shults has once again proved himself to be a writer-director capable of bringing a captivating tale to the screen in all its realistic, emotional glory. That you can never guess where Waves is heading is such an incredible accomplishment, Shults’ exquisite script pulling together multiple ideas and framing them in such a bold and refreshing way that we’re immediately entranced. His direction is subtle enough to coax natural performances from his excellent ensemble cast, yet confident enough to execute those hypnotic visuals and pulsing score perfectly throughout, the frantic pacing this creates barely letting us take a moments breath. As such, Waves often makes for a heartbreaking watch, but is the kind of film you’ll want to revisit again as soon as you possibly can.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix).

Petite Maman – A magical tale about friendship, childhood, and the bond between a mother and daughter

From building a gigantic tree house in the forest, to cooking crêpes, to acting out an elaborate make-believe drama, Petite Maman (2021) is all about the joys of being a child, this touching film revelling in the moments between friends that seem so small when they happen, but become lasting memories over time. It’s a sentiment beautifully portrayed by writer-director Céline Sciamma throughout and a feeling we can all relate to, her poignant narrative stirring up our own recollections of the relationships that shaped us when we were young. Yet the friendship at the centre of this story is unlike anything we ever experienced as kids, a unique, magical element turning this into something more akin to a fairytale than the drama we’re expecting.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) cook crêpes together...
Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) and her new friend (Gabrielle Sanz) cook crêpes together…

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is very much a solitary child when we first meet her though, happy enough in the presence of her own company as she wanders the forest collecting acorns or explores her grandmother’s old home, her parents in the middle of clearing it out after her recent death. Indeed, it’s rather telling that when her Dad (Stéphane Varupenne) finds a paddleboard and gives it to Nelly, she thinks it’s the perfect toy as “it’s a game you play alone”. Her Mum (Nina Meurisse) is the only friend she seems to need, the pair helping each other through this difficult time by sharing the thoughts and feelings they can’t tell anyone else, particularly Nelly who regrets not having said a proper goodbye to her grandmother when she had the chance. But with her Mum unable to deal with her own grief and the memories the clear-out brings up, their bond becomes strained, Nelly waking one morning to find her gone without any explanation. Alone and with no-one to confide in, Nelly meets a girl (Gabrielle Sanz) in the woods who she’s never seen before, the two of them striking up an immediate relationship after she helps the girl collect branches for her tree house. It’s only when Nelly gets to know her new friend that she begins to realise there’s something out of the ordinary about her – something that she sees as an amazing opportunity not to be missed.

It’s this unusual, magical aspect that makes Petite Maman so compelling to watch, Sciamma pulling her story in a completely unexpected direction and injecting it with a sense of childlike wonder that has us eager to follow Nelly on the exciting adventure unravelling before her. Yet Sciamma handles the fantastical side of her narrative in such a delicate, subtle way that it could almost be real, her writing and direction focusing instead on the everyday moments between the two friends as they get to know each other. With her camera placed at the girls’ height, we see everything through their eyes, Sciamma allowing us to better understand their imaginative, curious view of the world and reminding us what childhood actually feels like. Sciamma also emphasises the importance of nature and how the outdoors is the ideal nurturing playground for the girls, Claire Mathon’s gorgeous cinematography highlighting the dazzling autumnal colours of the woods while Jean-Baptiste de Laubier’s (aka. Para One) incredible soundtrack reflects the pure joy of these scenes (one particularly spine-tingling song accompanies a sequence of the girls’ rowing a boat to a concrete structure in the middle of a lake – a sublime moment that I guarantee will bring a tear to your eye).

Nelly and her Mum (Nina Meurisse) enjoying each other’s company...
Nelly and her Mum (Nina Meurisse) enjoying each other’s company…

While Sciamma has perfectly captured the exhilaration of childhood and the lasting friendships it can create, Petite Maman’s true heart lies with the relationship between mother and daughter, Sciamma portraying how valuable that bond can be, yet also how precarious. Nelly and her Mum certainly have their ups and downs (her sudden disappearance is a tad harsh in light of everything else her daughter is dealing with), but their connection is palpable whenever they’re together, the two of them sharing such a deep understanding that they instinctively know what the other wants, whether that be someone to listen as they talk about the past, or a tight hug to serve as a reminder that they’re not alone. Indeed, they’re so close that they often don’t need words to communicate, one great example being a scene in which Nelly feeds her crisps from the backseat of their car, this tender gesture making her Mum smile and briefly forget about her loss. Moments like this always have so much nostalgia and sentiment to them that it’s as if they’re actual memories coming alive onscreen, Nina Meurisse and Joséphine Sanz’s natural performances as mother and daughter also adding to the profound sense of realism that Sciamma has been able to establish throughout.

Petite Maman is such a lovely, enchanting film that you’ll never want it to end, Sciamma fully immersing us in the wonderful world she has created and the relationships she has so beautifully brought to life. Her script is superb, ideas about grief, the past, childhood and the mother-daughter bond all delicately explored, while her restrained direction puts the performances of her cast up front and centre, coaxing two incredible turns from her young leads in the process. Yet it is the balance between the supernatural elements of her story and the everyday moments that makes this particularly fascinating, Sciamma crafting an exquisite realist fairytale in which magic can be found in the most unexpected of places. Like Nelly, we just have to know where to look for it.

The Guilty – The original Danish drama is an intense, single-location masterpiece

Building tension in a film without ever leaving one room is quite an achievement to carry across an entire feature length running time. Yet Danish film The Guilty (Den skyldige, 2018) does this so effectively that it quickly becomes as gripping and heart-pounding as any other thriller. With the main action taking place off-screen, it is instead what we hear that matters – a situation that police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) similarly finds himself in during his shift as a telephone operator at an emergency dispatch centre. Bored and resentful of his job, Asger’s world is suddenly shaken up when he receives a call from a panic-stricken woman desperate for help (Jessica Dinnage), before their conversation is abruptly cut off. With little information to go by, and confined to his drab office space, Asger is still determined to do all he can to find her – even if that means bending the rules to get what he needs.

The tension starts to build in the office...
The tension starts to build in the office…

Asger’s search for clues into the woman’s whereabouts are just the beginning of things though, his remote investigation slowly unravelling further questions about who has taken her and why, each twist and turn he encounters keeping both him and us on the edge of our seats. Using the one thing he has at his disposal – the telephone – Asger keeps his line clear, contacting others to go track the woman and her kidnapper down, his calls becoming increasingly frantic as he realises time is running out. It’s an incredible premise, and one amazingly executed by writer-director Gustav Möller and co-writer Emil Nygaard Albertsen, who keep a fraught yet steady pace throughout their script, gradually building the tension to often sickening heights. Putting us directly alongside Asger, we experience everything in the same way he does, hearing what he hears and piecing together the clues at the same time. It’s a technique that fully immerses us in the story and keeps us continually gripped, the power of our imagination making what happens off-screen that much more effective, especially when it takes a turn for the worse.

With so much of the narrative taking place where we can’t see it, the use of sound becomes a crucial element – an aspect that Möller perfectly utilises throughout. While there is no score for the film, Möller instead uses other noises that Asger hears over the phone to build the tension, creating a sort of heightened diegetic soundtrack. Windscreen wipers pound a deafening beat as he waits for some devastating news, a ringback tone drags out for a sickening length of time as he prays someone picks up, while approaching sirens keep us in dreadful suspense during a vital scene. Yet it is often the silences in between these moments that are the most nerve-shredding, Möller eking out the lack of sound as Asger impatiently waits for updates about what is happening on the other end of the line. The deep silences that follow are almost unbearable sometimes, particularly effective during one later sequence in which Asger quietly tries to keep his emotions in check after realising the full horror of what another officer has just seen in the victim’s house – a moment that is so shocking we’re glad we can’t see it.

Asger (Jakob Cedergren) starts to feel the pressure...
Asger (Jakob Cedergren) starts to feel the pressure…

While the search for the woman ticks along rapidly, his frustration at having to rely on other people to find her steadily grows, Asger clearly wishing he could be amongst the action rather than staring at a screen. The times he has to wait for others to call back are almost torturous for him, Asger nervously watching the on-call light, hoping it will flash at any second and that the person on the other end of the line has good news for him. Jakob Cedergren’s stunning central performance makes these moments all the more taut and relatable, his portrayal slowly changing from cold and distant to wild and frantic, as Asger gradually unravels throughout the course of the film. It is a performance that anchors the whole concept and which makes the unseen action surprisingly impactful, Möller often letting the camera rest on Cedergren’s expression-filled face, which tells us all we need to know without him saying anything. Cedergren’s brilliant portrayal also hints at something darker within Asger’s life that he is trying to avoid, an aspect that Möller and Albertsen similarly allude to at certain points in the narrative. It is only when they finally reveal why Asger is working in the call centre that we fully comprehend how much this conflicted character has to lose, as well as a moral quandary he’s about to face that could change everything.

It’s this skilful mix of Asger’s own backstory and the main thrilling tale at its centre which makes The Guilty so much more memorable and intriguing to watch, its final, gut-punch of an ending rounding off what is a near perfect film. Sweeping you along in the action, it flies by at every moment, Möller barely letting us catch a breath as the twists and turns keep coming. With a brilliant script, perfectly executed concept and expert direction, Möller is able to keep his film taut and engrossing, creating something that feels like it takes place in multiple locations, despite it never leaving the dim office space it’s set in. But it is Cedergren’s performance that is the most impressive, the film often hinging on his subtle and multi-layered portrayal – something that makes Asger’s journey throughout all the more impactful, and all the more real.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/film_review/lff-2018-the-guilty/)

Prisoners of the Ghostland – An outlandish, Nicolas Cage-starring action thriller that somehow fails to deliver

There’s such a huge mix of genres in Prisoners of the Ghostland (2021) that it’d almost be easier to name one that doesn’t show up, Sion Sono’s latest offering blending elements of sci-fi, Westerns, Samurai epics, neo-noir dramas, post-apocalyptic thrillers, and even horror. It’s a bold choice that you can’t help being impressed by, this bizarre mish-mash of styles meaning you’re never quite sure what to expect as the story unravels. Yet as wonderfully weird as this genre-crossing film is, there’s often so much going on here that the plot becomes a bit of a confusing mess, the narrative sagging under the weight of its many ideas and turning what should be an entertaining, funny watch into a bit of a chore. And I for one never thought I’d say that about a film in which bombs are strapped to Nicolas Cage’s testicles…

Hero (Nicolas Cage) and Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) make a bank withdrawal...
Hero (Nicolas Cage) and Psycho (Nick Cassavetes) make a withdrawal at the bank…

What did Cage’s character do to land himself in such hot water you ask? Well, after a bank robbery gone wrong lands him a lengthy stint in prison, the Governor (Bill Moseley) of this strange near-future land decides this convict is the perfect person to send into the wild to find his runaway adopted Granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella). And a suit lined with explosives is exactly the type of gentle persuasion that will help the reluctant Hero (that’s literally Cage’s character name) complete his task in three days. It’s a unique, out-there concept, and one that has all the markings of a bombastic, gory action thriller. What’s surprising then is how little Prisoners fails to deliver on this easy promise, Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai’s script often moving so quickly from scene to scene that the tension is never given a chance to build into anything exciting. Take the whole opening sequence, in which Hero squares up to the local residents of Samurai Town, swords and guns drawn as Cage sneers at them in only a way he can. It’s a great start and one in which we’re waiting with baited breath to see what Hero will do to scatter the assembled crowd. And sadly the answer is…nothing, Hero simply accepting his fate before riding into the horizon on a stolen bicycle – a genuinely hilarious moment, but one that ultimately falls flat after we’ve been teased with such a potentially explosive scenario. While it’s true that Sono does break out the big guns (literally) in the last twenty minutes for an impressive, bloody finale, there’s so many directionless scenes before this that our interest is long gone by then, even the sight of Hero finally getting to unleash his rage on some unsuspecting townsfolk not enough to satisfy us.

Bernice (Sofia Boutella) meets the reluctant Hero...
Bernice (Sofia Boutella) meets the reluctant Hero…

There are redeeming features to Prisoners that will reward your curiosity though. The production design is absolutely exquisite, each new set piece in this bizarre post-apocalyptic world more extravagant and weird than the last. From a bank filled with neon-colours, to a dusty town featuring both Western and Samurai styles, to a Mad Max-like nuclear wasteland filled with living mannequins (as horrifying as it sounds), all of it is wonderful to see come alive onscreen, every moment looking gorgeous thanks to Sono’s vibrant and striking direction. There’s also a clever mix of the old and new that makes the setting of the story particularly intriguing, mobile phones, flashing neon signs and fast sports cars oddly out of place amongst the saloons, Geisha bars and barren landscapes. It’s an aesthetic reflected in Joseph Trapanese’s excellent score too, which blends twangy Old West guitar music with electronic sci-fi beats to great effect, creating a truly unique sound that perfectly fits this surreal futuristic environment.

Of course, the main reason many will want to watch this is to see Cage doing what Cage does best – turn up in strange films in all his wide-eyed, manic glory. And he certainly doesn’t disappoint, leaving all traces of subtly behind to deliver a usual OTT performance, coming out with some insane one-liners and often just yelling for no reason (there’s an incredibly funny moment of him screaming “TESTICLE!” at the top of his lungs). As amusing as Cage is though, it’s the brilliant Sofia Boutella who is the standout here, her oddly touching portrayal as Bernice actually giving some gravity to the craziness going on. She also gets to do some damage with a Samurai sword during a fight sequence that displays her incredible balletic dance moves, despite the scene being over with far too quickly. Indeed, she’s sadly underused for a lot for this – a shame as her journey from mute, mistreated woman to revenge-seeking badass is one of the most interesting parts of Prisoner’s narrative. The same goes for Tak Sakaguchi, whose Samurai character is barely given any screen time, an intriguing plot strand about him preserving his sister’s life by working as the Governor’s bodyguard sadly unexplored. It’s elements like this that prove there really is a compelling story buried within Prisoners. But with the focus on Cage and the wacky set pieces, we never get to see it.

Hero prepares for one last stand...
Hero prepares for one last stand…

On paper, Prisoners has all the makings of a cult classic. A director known for his outlandish, distinctive work. A crazy plot and a weirder setting. Nicolas Cage doing what Nicolas Cage does best. So it’s such a surprise that this misses the mark on all counts, the result a drag that’s almost completely devoid of fun. With a script that throws so much at it to see what sticks, and a story that doesn’t go anywhere, it never feels like a cohesive whole, our interest waning even with the addition of those wonderful set pieces. Indeed, there are moments of genius here, but you have to really search for them amongst all the other nonsense going on. A huge shame.

Koko-di Koko-da – If you go down to the woods today…

With its creepy woodland setting, sinister music and eerie opening sequence (a mysterious troupe of characters stalking a forest), the world of Koko-di Koko-da is immediately unsettling, each passing moment seeming to foreshadow darker things to come. But even this can’t prepare us for the story that’s about to follow, this surreal Swedish thriller turning one couple’s ordinary camping trip into a nightmarish experience. Turns out this holiday really is going to be unforgettable.

Leif Edlund as Tobias in Koko-di Koko-da

The nightmare started a long time ago for Tobias (Leif Edlund) and Elin (Ylva Gallon) though, the shadowy woods the least of their worries when we first meet them. Still recovering after a tragic accident, the pair are constantly at each other’s throats, the simplest of disagreements turning into the biggest of arguments (like buying the wrong type of ice cream). Spending time together in close quarters certainly isn’t the wisest choice, but they’re willing to risk endless squabbling for the chance of reconnecting, despite the devastating past that can’t be erased. Marital bliss is the last thing on their minds once they arrive though, the couple finding themselves confronted again and again by a menacing group who they’re unable to escape from (in more ways than one). And before they know it, their peaceful retreat quickly descends into a terrifying ordeal of bizarre proportions.

It’s here that Koko-di Koko-da becomes so much more than a simple thriller in the woods, writer-director Johannes Nyholm unravelling his plot in an almost dreamlike way as Tobias and Elin try to make sense of what’s going on. Yet Nyholm keeps his narrative grounded in reality by exploring rich themes of grief and guilt throughout, using the situation the pair find themselves in as an allegory for the past they can’t leave behind. With the addition of that ominous woodland setting and caricature-like villains (Morad Baloo Khatchadorian plays a sort of giant while Peter Belli is the epitome of Rumpelstiltskin), Koko-di Koko-da is very much a fairytale coming to horrifying life, that moralistic plot familiar to us, yet given greater depth by that contemporary spin. Nyholm even uses shadow puppets at some points, the images of bunnies and a colourful rooster (whose melodic call is the ‘koko-di koko-da’ of the title) looking like they’ve been lifted straight from the pages of a children’s storybook. It’s an incredibly effective technique that is beautiful to watch, but also surprisingly disturbing, those innocent motifs reflecting the tragedy Tobias and Elin have faced, and warning them what might happen if they fail to confront their issues with each other.

The mysterious group stalk the woods...

And yet, there’s something about Nyholm’s approach that means his narrative isn’t as engaging as it should be, the latter half quickly losing all tension when Nyholm reveals what’s going to happen to the couple. While those fairytale tropes work well and are impressively woven into the main plot, other parts are weighed down by the film’s many ideas and themes, with every single moment seeming to be symbolic in some way – as if Nyholm is constantly nudging us to make sure we’re definitely getting it. The mix of drama and horror is also jarring, the emotional subtlety of the first scenes (which are genuinely heartbreaking) disappearing later on as things take a turn for the weird and terrifying. Having the two side-by-side makes us realise how much we miss the realism of the early parts – of a couple simply stuck in their own grief and unable to talk to each other about it. That’s certainly a lot more powerful than anything Tobias and Elin are about to face in those woods. Nyholm’s over reliance on violence in these later moments sadly only confirms that he knows this too, much of it feeling unnecessarily cruel (especially when the more horrific acts are so often aimed at Elin) and like a cheap way to keep us watching when his story becomes repetitive. 

While it’s undoubtedly flawed, there’s still a lot about Koko-di Koko-da to admire. The atmospheric imagery and immersive sound design are both wonderfully effective, Nyholm using each to pull us into the nightmare alongside Tobias and Elin. And Simon Ohlsson and Olof Cornéer’s eerie score is superb – a haunting soundtrack that you’ll want to revisit. But overall the narrative is lacking, the tension lost early on because of certain plot points, and the emotional realism pushed aside when the weirder elements are introduced. And, despite some great performances from Edlund and Gallon, we sadly just don’t care what happens to the characters, the ending leaving us cold and dissatisfied.

Koko-di Koko-da is released on September 7 exclusively on BFI Player, with a special introduction by film critic Mark Kermode. The film will also be released on Blu-ray and digital.