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film review

I don’t need to hear the ironic detached veneer of Kanye West’s I Am A God over top of a conflict between father (Sterling K. Brown, right) and son (Kelvin Harrison Jr., left).Courtesy of Elevation

  • Waves
  • Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults
  • Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown
  • Classification R; 135 minutes

Rating:

2 out of 4 stars

Writer-director and A24 favourite Trey Edward Shults’s newest screen endeavour, Waves, is a film about many things. It’s a film about black spirituality, black families, black men and boys, black women and girls. It’s a film about black masculinity condensed to its most palatable or even reactive form; a story that positions black girlhood as an all-remedy salve. What’s most unfortunate about Waves, however, is that it is a perfect study of a filmmaker using vague overtures to blackness as flattened, aesthetic material.

I’m tired of watching movies by white directors that are sold to black audiences as if our lived experience is as culturally transmittable as making a mix-tape. Indeed, much of Waves functions in this way – as a black cultural collage that points to depths of lived blackness that are never fully explored, never mind known. Blackness and black cultural product are so wholly intertwined with style here as to highlight that Shults, who is white, lacks not only the lived experience to responsibly make this film, but also the lack of vision needed to sell it as the challenging formal experience it wishes to see itself as. Instead, Waves lands as a hollow work clearly invested in a stylistic syntax that is utterly devoid of any sort of self-reflexive nuance.

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I don’t need to see a black boy punch a hole in the wall while rapper Tyler the Creator plays to know his confused fury. I don’t need to hear the ironic detached veneer of Kanye West’s I Am A God over top of a conflict between father (Sterling K. Brown) and son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to know that what we are seeing is an intergenerational power struggle of black masculinities. These things are obvious if you are black, or even just receptive. But Waves is content to settle for such obvious storytelling, and in doing so, it alleviates itself of the work that direly needs to be undertaken. It understands black life as black culture, and black culture as pure aesthetic material.

There is a lack of livedness in Waves.Courtesy of Elevation

One wonders how Shults would’ve approached Waves’s story if he hadn’t cast Harrison Jr. in the film’s lead role, high-school wrestling star Tyler – a character that originated as a mix of fiction and autobiographical elements from Shults’s own life. This narrative about a suburban black family upended by an act of violence is not one that gives itself over to a generalization of lived experience, and in haphazardly reshaping its story and characters, Shults has undertaken a naive attempt at intercultural translation.

The character of Tyler and the film itself is said to be a collaboration between director and cast (a sentiment that has echoed loudly this year in discussions of other white-directed films featuring black talent and black stories, such as The Last Black Man in San Francisco) and, while I don’t wish to discount the experience of collective work that Brown and Harrison Jr. have spoken to, it seems to me as if Shults has taken much more than he has given back.

There is a lack of livedness in this film, which is so disheartening, but also completely unsurprising. That black lives exist as a cultural shorthand for whiteness to point to without action or even thought. That our culture and complexities can be so easily translated into cultural capital or crudely materialized decorative accessories for white “visionaries” without question or hesitation is really something else. The comfort shown by Shults in doing just that is perhaps what is the most violent aspect of Waves, a film that trades in harm intercut with the most shallow of stylistic flourishes and an almost compulsive need to centre a visual project set only on the surface of meaning.

The goodness of Waves, if it can even be called such, stands solely with its core cast. What they have done with a film that is so culturally flat seems to almost rupture the screen. Despite the film’s best tries at containing them only as self-congratulatory stand-ins for larger cultural conversations never touched on, the actors bring feeling and vitality to a story which is content to speak only in half-sentences.

Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry are at career bests here, despite it all, and Harrison Jr. easily continues his winning streak through from this year’s Luce. Particularly in comparison to Luce, there is something so horribly affecting about watching Harrison Jr. on screen here in as much as he becomes pure bodily material for Shults’s film. And it simply hurts to watch.

Waves opens Nov. 22 in Toronto, and Dec. 6 across Canada

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