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Austin Film Festival 2019: “Waves” Review

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults’s third feature film, “Waves,” served as the Centerpiece Film for 2019’s Austin Film Festival. It screened on Monday, October 28, at the Paramount Theatre. Watch the most recent trailer below.

The latest from indie darling production/distribution company A24, “Waves” is the story of a family and those in their orbit. Parents Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) run a therapy office together, hoping to give their teenagers, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell), the things they never had growing up. They’re an average middle class family: They live in a nice home and, though they don’t always get along, they love each other nonetheless.

I won’t give more than that away concerning the plot, because this movie has unexpected moments that are best left, well, unexpected. What I will say is that Shults has once again made a tense and captivating film examining relationships (both familial and romantic) and grief. The tension that the writer/director used to great success in his previous film, “It Comes at Night,” is present here too; several moments are shot more like a thriller than a drama.

Shults and his cinematographer Drew Daniels do a lot of near-experimental things with color and camera movement. Nearly every scene shot in a car takes multiple 360 turns to look at the vehicle’s occupants and their actions, adding an extra element of movement. There are pans across activity, sometimes moving with the frenetic motion of a student athlete and some as if you’re examining an artful tapestry. The neon and rainbow shading and lighting throughout the movie make an already beautiful movie even more gorgeous, and “Waves” is overall visually brighter than Shults’s other work.

Of course, the entire cast kills it (including Lucas Hedges and Alexa Demie). But the stand-outs here are Kelvin Harrison, Jr. — who Shults worked with on “It Comes at Night” and who helped him shape the character of Tyler — and Taylor Russell. These two carry the movie’s emotional weight with the vulnerability of their teenage characters and the maturity those roles require. It’s something to see, and they could both be awards contenders, if you ask me.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Alexa Demie in “Waves” | Photo credit: A24

Another thing about “Waves” that can’t be ignored is its soundtrack (including the score). With artists like Frank Ocean, Animal Collective, Chance the Rapper and more, this soundtrack has something for everyone. And that’s before I mention that the score was done by none other than Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who turn in more perfectly composed companions to a film. All of this adds to the movie more than you may think, because the sound design is brilliant. Just as color is used, so is music; Shults said during the Q&A that both of those elements are “meant to get you closer to the kids’ points of view.”

A particularly clever use of music is the one in the trailer embedded above. Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” is included in a couple of scenes in the film, and oh, how its message resonates: A lot can change in a little bit of time.

“Waves” is the type of film that will deliver both emotional gut punches and sweet, heartfelt gifts. If all movies had this level of talent involved, picking favorites would be an impossible task. If you’re online and interested in film, I know you’ve heard it before, but don’t sleep on this movie. See it in theaters, and you won’t regret it.

“Waves” crashes into theaters November 15!

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Read the latest posts from the Austin Film Festival 2019.

Featured photo credit: A24

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