Waves is a film that many thought would win the coveted TIFF Grolsch People's Choice Award, but in spite of not placing, it remains a film festival phenomenon, and growing sleeper hit. When TIFF added an extra screening of the film on Saturday morning due to overwhelming demand, its ending was greeted with yet another effusive standing ovation, in addition to a surprise Q&A with filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) and star Kelvin Harrison Jr. This film is connecting, and while there are some questions about how it approaches race and privilege, this two-part exploration of teenage relationships, fast love, and Black family ties is REALLY striking a chord in part by leaning in to some pre-existing pop culture connections.
We had hints this film was going to hit big with audiences. Fan favourite Sterling K. Brown makes us cry on a weekly basis on This is Us, and brings this positive emotional association, mixed with an alpha, smothering stage-dad energy to his paternal role in Waves. When he posted the trailer for the emotionally fraught family and relationship drama at the beginning of TIFF, he wrote it left him "as proud as I've ever been of anything in my career". That, plus the effusive Telluride praise should have been enough of a tease about what crowds were in for when Waves landed at TIFF. Instead, it hit like an asteroid. Premiering at the halfway mark of the festival, Waves rivalled Judy and Just Mercy and earned multiple impassioned standing ovations, and thematic comparisons to Moonlight, even though its 135 minute runtime feels MUCH, MUCH longer and is plagued by an overly stylistic reliance on dizzying camerawork, aspect ratio storytelling, and colourful interludes.
Still, Variety basically calls it a unicorn, with Peter Debruge writing, "movies of this calibre come along seldom to never". I agree. All things considered, it's ridiculously good, and Waves has become not just a surprise breakout story, but a curiosity. It has "you HAVE to see this" energy not unlike what The Florida Project had two years ago, another A24 film.
So, what's the deal? Plot details for the film have mostly been kept under wraps in an effort to maximize its emotional impact. And wow, is it emotional. The trailer keeps the story quite ambiguous, but Waves examines the life of Tyler; a teenage wrestling prodigy (Kelvin Harrison Jr., of Luce fame) whose life goes awry following an injury, which significantly interferes with his relationship with his "cool girl" girlfriend (Alexa Demie, AKA Maddy from Euphoria) and his family. His upper middle class helicopter parents don't necessarily know how to help him, especially when you consider his father (Sterling K. Brown) wants nothing more than to have his son chase an athletic career he never had. Separated in two parts, Waves chronicles the highs and lows of young love in the greater Miami area, with the second half focusing on the doe-eyed connection between Tyler's sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and her boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges).
The premise is simple: life goes in "waves," with devastating highs and lows. Waves is not your typical tearjerker. It's intense, frustrating yet also full of humour, and filmmaker Trey Edward Shults' cast appeared to really love each other on the red carpet, spending almost twice as long as normal on the photo wall on Tuesday night, and saying hello, before continuing down the press line.
Taylor Russell is the standout of the film though, and looks poised to become this year's breakout ingénue. She's 25, from Vancouver, and her connection to Emily later led to her falling for Lucas, who's now her boyfriend. On-screen, she's a selfless caregiver - raising an elderly cat, lending a supporting ear to her spiraling brother, and when she does find love? She continues to make sacrifice after sacrifice to better their lives, instead of coming to terms with her own decisions and grief. But do not confuse her innocence for naivety. While Kelvin's hyper-masculine Tyler fills the audience with anxiety, Taylor's sensitive embodiment of Emily pops off the screen, with one of the most heartfelt performances of the festival. As the audience avatar, you cry when she cries, and laughs when she laughs.
Taylor delivers this year's must-see breakout performance. Her star-making turn is deep and complex, and on-par with Brie Larson's in Short Term 12. She's also very sweet on a red carpet, and has a warmth about her that makes her tough to forget.
It will be curious though to see if mainstream audiences will take a shot at embracing this story with some pretty avant-garde, Eternal Sunshine-like beats upon its November 1 release. But with most critics giving it effusive thumbs up after thumbs up, that's got to help. The Frank Ocean and Kanye West-inspired soundtrack does not hurt either. And perhaps missing out on a People's Choice prize, or runner-up prize will only further help launch the "wave" of awards season attention for the film, and for Taylor.
Holy shit, WAVES. If you've been following Trey Edward Shults, its a thrill to see him finally blow the doors off and go epic. Half meltdown of an American prince, half incandescent return to grace. A black ORDINARY PEOPLE. Too long and I wouldn't cut a frame. #TIFF2019— Ty Burr (@tyburr) September 8, 2019
“Every movie I have made has been leading to this one. It’s an immersive emotional experience that sticks with you, and you’ll be thinking about it tomorrow.” - Trey Edward Shults during Q&A for @wavesmovie #TIFF19 pic.twitter.com/LObneDLDmc— Brittney Catherine (@britstead) September 14, 2019