Often when a film comes riding with a great deal of buzz, even the most case-hardened critics amongst us are bound to get swayed, one way or another. But Waves, the new offering from Trey Edward Shults, the writer-director who has made a mark with Krisha and It Comes At Night, is truly a tour de force which takes the familiar subject of a dysfunctional, damaged family and makes it a site where faith can be reclaimed, and healing becomes a possibility.
I haven’t seen the first two films Shults has made, but given the way he takes us all the way inside his characters’ lives, sometimes too deep for comfort but always mining for truth, I am going to go looking for his previous work. Meanwhile, this one has filled me up with so much feeling, so many emotions that I know I will savour Waves’ bitter-sweet tang for a long time.
On the surface, everything seems to be going well for 18-year-old Tyler (breakout actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He is part of his high school’s wrestling team. He adores his girl-friend (Alexa Demie) whom he names Goddess. His parents seem stern but loving, and the family is completed by his younger sister (Taylor Russell), whom we see initially on the periphery and who then shifts centre-stage after a shocking incident.
Much of the film is focused on teenage Americans doing their thing, dissing authority, partying, furiously texting (do they even talk to each other anymore?). But Shults reveals a curiously old-fashioned concern about family values and a yearning for togetherness, especially when we see young Tyler going off half-cocked, railing against the tough love his father exhibits (clearly, for the father, like so many parents, showing affection is a sign of weakness) throwing off his mother’s care, and stalking his girl-friend who is angry with him for not listening.
Sometimes, it all seems too much. And some of it feels a bit constructed and stretched. But for the most part, Waves is wonderful, the camera hovering literally a few inches away from the faces, each blemish and frown and smile and tear in sharp focus. Being hand-held, it brings the sense of urgency and immediacy to the proceedings, and sometimes we want it to back off, and just observe. Shults is interested in everything the characters do, and how their impulsivity and their unthinkingness leads to a kind of reluctant growing up. Love, or something like it, can be the only redemption.
The Father, a Bulgarian film that won the Karlovy Vary top prize in July, toplines family too. But while Waves gives us a long, hard look at the dynamics which can hopelessly skew families, The Father, directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, takes refuge in the absurd, and making us laugh through sheer exasperation.
When Pavel’s mother dies, he has to go to the village where his home, and his father, is. But this is no ordinary condolence call. The father, Vassil, is a real character. For reasons best known to him, Pavel lies to his wife and fudges the reason for his travelling to his village; for the same obscure reasons, he omits to tell his father that he, Pavel, is now about to become a father.
As befitting a black comedy with plenty of graveyard humour, all kinds of strange things happen – Vassil is convinced that his wife wanted to tell him something significant before she passed away, and wants his son to help discover what that is. A road-trip ensues, and we see this duo dance around each other in irritation and affection: this is precisely how close family members negotiate tricky hair-pin bends in their relationships.
In the end, we know the secret. It’s quite mundane, but it takes these two men who have been used to driving each other away, and getting them closer than they have been in years. As they say, even in the best of families.