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).

Krisha – Secrets, lies and murky pasts in a devastating family drama

Krisha (2015)

Our introduction to the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is an intriguing, dreamlike opening shot of her staring out at us: vulnerable, lost, alone. It is one of many moments in Trey Edward Shults’ film that lets us into the true psyche of his character, while on the surface she appears to be all smiles and happiness at a busy family reunion. A touching yet hilarious film about secrets that won’t stay buried and a past that can’t be forgotten, Krisha (2015) is also filled with a wonderful authentic atmosphere that is felt in every element of the production.

This realism is felt from the moment we enter the house with Krisha, Shults using a stunning long take that follows behind her as she hauls her suitcase through the neighbourhood before she awkwardly greets family members she hasn’t seen for years. It is also in the semi-improvised dialogue that pervades every scene, Shults bravely letting his cast take the reins, something that they obviously find easy due to the fact that several of them are related to each other in real life. Along with the dialogue, this lends Krisha a free-flowing energy, characters talking over each other, the noise level never ceasing as each fights for acknowledgement amid the chaos. It also adds a brilliant comedic element to the film, with plenty of laugh-out-loud moments happening amongst all of the family commotion.

Happy families as Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) looks on...

Yet what starts as a comedy gradually descends into a dark and moving drama as Krisha starts to lose her grip on herself and the situation she finds herself in. Krisha Fairchild is astounding in these moments, her riveting performance loathsome yet ridden with pathos – a character who is truly her own worst enemy. You don’t know whether to hate her or love her…or both.

It is also in these moments that Shults’ directorial style and cinematography really comes into its own, practically becoming another character in the film. While the constantly moving fluid camera at the start authentically takes in the actions of the tale instead of dictating it, the later, darker moments of Shults’ story are even more perfectly emphasised through his choice of cinematic devices. Switching to a different camera and smaller frame size, Shults compresses the tale and makes it seem as if we are inside Krisha’s own damaged mind, a method that adds a compellingly dreamlike edge as the story hurtles towards its conclusion. Inventive and engaging, this directorial style is also something that adds to the overall uniqueness of Krisha, something that would make repeat viewings wholly rewarding.

Krisha tries to reconnect with Trey (Trey Edward Shults)...

With the vibe of a Mike Leigh film and a palpable realism that is felt throughout, Krisha is one of the greatest representations of a family seen on film. Assembling a whole range of methods to bring his dysfunctional family to life, in particular innovative use of style and cinematic devices, Shults creates a gripping tale that is both hilarious and poignant. His film is all the more impactful for Krisha Fairchild’s stunning central performance – just one of the many reasons this perfect film will stay with you for a long time after watching it. That this is also Trey Edward Shults directorial debut is nothing short of astounding; a sentiment that perfectly describes the rest of the film too.

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Best Films of 2016

The end of the year can only mean only thing on square-eyed-geek: Top Ten time. It’s been another great year for films, making it harder than ever to whittle my list down to just ten brilliant ones that stood out amongst everything else. But whittle I did… Same rules as previous years apply – films included in the list had to have a 2016 release date in the UK. So get ready to peruse my countdown of the best this year had to offer…

10. Adult Life Skills

Adult Life Skills (2016)

Rachel Tunnard’s impressive first feature film not only stood out because of its brilliantly realistic cast of female characters, but also because of its beautiful, touching story. Jodie Whittaker excels as the girl struggling to become a fully fledged adult, something made all the more difficult by still living in her Mum’s (Lorraine Ashbourne) garden shed. Writer-director Tunnard handles every moment with care to create a film that is excellently funny and stunningly poignant in equal measure.

9. The Witch

The Witch (2015)

One of the most terrifying horror films of 2016, and barely a jumpscare to be found. A New England family find themselves plagued by disturbing occurrences that may or may not be linked to witchcraft, their paranoia gradually growing as the family begin to fall apart. A quiet yet deeply unnerving film that builds to a chilling conclusion, it also contains more than one nightmarish moment that will stick in your mind for a long, long time.

8. Bone Tomahawk

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

This western doesn’t seem like much at first, it’s unassuming plot simply involving a group of men setting out to free some locals taken captive by nasty, cannibalistic beings. However once the story really gets going it soon becomes an incredibly intense ride, as well as a horror of sorts with some shockingly gory moments. And with an excellent central turn as the Sheriff on the trail, Kurt Russell proved he really was worthy of that comeback crown after his other superb role in The Hateful Eight.

7. Krisha

Krisha (2015)

With semi-improvised dialogue, naturalistic performances (with several members of the cast actually related to each other in real life) and a free-flowing camera that takes in the action rather than dictates it, Trey Edward Shults’ film has a palpable realism throughout – a realism that ensures it packs a punch in the right moments. Set during a family reunion in which the titular Krisha (Krisha Fairchild – riveting throughout) starts to slowly lose her grip on herself and everything that is happening around her, Shults’ film is hilarious at times, but also impressively dark and moving.

6. The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight (2015)

While some bemoaned the slow narrative, use of just one location and lack of his usual stylistic flourishes, this is Quentin Tarantino’s most mature film to date, and one that gets better with each viewing. That slow build only serves to make what follows more gripping and impactful, with the writer-director’s flair for dialogue, plot and pacing filling the time perfectly and taking you on what feels like a sprawling journey when we barely leave the one room. Add to that some superb performances from an amazing ensemble cast, and the result is one of Tarantino’s greatest films…for now anyway.

5. Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

While this sequel started in the usual comic book way, what soon followed was a complex plot that thrillingly twisted and turned, keeping everyone on the edge of their seats. Yet the Russo Brothers didn’t lose sight of the fun aspect of the Marvel universe, giving us yet more amazing set pieces, choreographed fights, and laughs-a-plenty, plus new character additions (the long awaited Black Panther and a brilliant new incarnation of a certain webbed superhero) to ensure we were more than entertained, and to make this one of the best Marvel films we’ve seen so far. The bar for what’s to follow has been set very high indeed.

4. Victoria

Victoria (2015)

This incredible film is genuinely captivating from start to finish, something that is firstly achieved by the astounding fact it was shot in one single take – a technically marvellous method to watch unfold, but also a technique that adds a raw excitement rarely seen in any other films. Yet Victoria isn’t on this list simply for that reason. An intense ride that puts you right alongside the titular Victoria and the other characters as they get mixed up in something they shouldn’t, the story zips by at a breathless pace and barely stops for the whole running time. Filmmaking at its very best.

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

The funniest film of the year, yet surprisingly also the most heart-warming. Writer-director Taika Waititi pulls us into the eccentric world of Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison), “a real bad egg” who suddenly finds adventure calling when he meets his new foster family. However Waititi grounds the story with a beautiful poignancy, specifically with the great, realistic central relationship between Ricky and his gruff Uncle Hec (Sam Neill – perfect). With a superb conclusion worthy of any Hollywood action sequence, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is unpredictable in the best way, endlessly quotable, and more importantly an absolute joy to watch.

2. Mustang

Mustang (2015)

A stunning, devastating tale about a group of sisters kept indoors because of their gender and a misunderstanding, Mustang was one of the most powerful films of 2016 and absolutely essential viewing because of its subject matter. Director-writer Deniz Gamze Ergüven and writer Alice Winocour explore gender and culture issues in an absorbing, moving way, with the performances from the young central female cast all brilliantly realistic and making what follows all the more distressing. You’ll be fighting back tears in the end.

1. American Honey

American Honey (2016)

With its sumptuous cinematography, naturalistic performances, thumping soundtrack and sweeping story about a girl (Sasha Lane) joining a group of young magazine sellers on a road trip, American Honey wasn’t just a film you watched: it was something you experienced alongside its characters. A coming-of-age film that also features clever commentaries on the myth of the American dream and the rich-poor divide, writer-director Andrea Arnold ensures our attention is gripped with every frame, in a poetic film that is genuinely thrilling to watch. A cinematic gem that will stay with you for a long time.

(Those that just missed out on the top ten: Ethel & Ernest, Room, Train to Busan, Green Room, High-Rise, Arrival, Deadpool, Star Trek Beyond, Julieta, 10 Cloverfield Lane).

So that’s it for another year. 2017 already looks like it’ll be another brilliant time for all things film, with releases such as La La Land, Alien: Covenant, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Silence, Dunkirk, Star Wars: Episode VIII, Manchester by the Sea and Thor: Ragnarok on the horizon, as well as many, many more. Happy New Year lovely readers! And see you over in 2017…

(Agree or disagree with any of my choices in the top ten? Think I’ve missed anything out? Leave a comment below to tell me what you think!).