By Chris Cannataro
Add another amazing movie to the list of movies produced by A24 films. At this point, they have cemented themselves as one of the defining production/distribution studios of this decade, and I think that sentiment will only be solidified with time. Their main attraction at TIFF 2019 is Waves, telling a timeless story of love and loss while simultaneously giving a thoughtful critique of contemporary suburban American life.
Trey Edward Shults’ film, set in suburban Florida around 2018, depicts the deterioration of the nuclear American family. But it also depicts the emotions that comes with recognizing that deterioration and the catharsis that comes from setting down a new path. The Williams family Shults portrays from the start of the film is classic in its setup, a family you might find in a Norman Rockwell painting if he was around today. But as cracks appear in the façade, the breakdown of this nuclear American family happens at a nearly exponential rate. The story follows siblings Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell) as they navigate an angsty teenage world, making choices and being faced with the consequences of those choices, all with the stressful layers a rocky family life adds.
The acting in this film (huge surprise) was spectacular. Harrison Jr., Russell, Sterling K. Brown (who plays their father) and Renee Elise Goldsberry (who plays their mother) have an incredible family dynamic in the scenes they are all together, and one on one. The support of Alexa Demie (who you may remember from Mid 90s & Euphoria) and Lucas Hedges (who you may remember from Mid90s & Lady Bird) add incredible range to the cast and remind viewers of the strong talent roster in the A24 productions network.
Arguably as important as the on-screen talent was the scoring and soundtrack to Waves. In the post-film Q&A, Director Trey Edward Shults actually mentioned that Trent Reznor reached out because he enjoyed Shults’ work. Reznor & Atticus Ross, who previously won an Oscar for the score of The Social Network and a Grammy for the soundtrack to Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, did an incredible job setting the tone of the movie through their minimal yet significant scoring. This score is complemented by a soundtrack boasting tracks by Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky, Tyler the Creator and multiple Frank Ocean songs, among other relevant contemporary artists. This film pulls no punches by using every element it can to tell the story; incredible camera work, staging, lighting, editing and more are all used to give an amazingly artistic and contemporary lens to this story.
But at the heart of what makes this such a rollercoaster of a film are the themes and subject matter packed in. Not a lot of films can look at the breadth of topics in this film as naturally as Shults is able to achieve. Those relevant to the adolescent experience like relationships, drug abuse, and overall poor decision making are depicted in this film almost as sincerely as one would expect it to in a Floridian suburb. The movie gives interesting examples of how messy the truth can be, and the difficulties of honesty, but also the downfalls of dishonesty (to certain extremes).
This movie also takes a serious look at how all of the previously stated themes can play into life and death, coming of age and growing old, and the nuances of making mistakes and forgiving others for much-needed catharsis. Duality is an important part of this movie, as it resembles the undulating nature of life. When hit with a wave, you can keep swimming or you can sink and drown - and I think Shults uses this as a very effective metaphor, to sum up this story.
*Editor’s Note: Waves screened at TIFF ‘19 and will make its North American release on November 1st, 2019.