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TIFF Review: Shults’ fantastic ‘Waves’ documents the fall of a high school wrestler

Courtesy of TIFF
 
 

Editor’s Note: Vanyaland’s Nick Johnston is north of the border all week long for the 2019 Toronto International Film Festivalclick here for our continued coverage from the fest and also check out our full TIFF archives of past coverage.

You know, it’s a rare feeling to walk out of a movie and instantly want to put on The Mountain Goats’ All Hail West Texas just so you can get back in the headscape of being a high school fuck-up who can’t but seem to make the wrong choice at every single turn. Specifically, the song “Fall of the High School Running Back,” which was on my mind throughout the entirety of Waves, the stellar new film from director Trey Edward Shults.

It’s not too hard to understand why, after all: Shults’ film documents the self-destructive path of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., working again with the director after the underseen It Comes at Night), a Miami high school wrestler, who, thanks to a nagging shoulder injury, sees his athletic dreams go up in puffs of smoke. This is an electric tragedy, one that understands the tremendous sadness and discomfort of youth, and depicts it in an almost mythopoetic fashion. 

You see, before his shoulder started acting up, the world was Tyler’s oyster: Aside from falling asleep during a church service, the kid didn’t really have any troubles aside from some long-lingering trauma from the death of his mother at a young age. His well-off father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, who deserves roles in practically everything released), is a hard, strict man, who pushes his son too hard in his pursuit of his wrestling dreams, and works out beside him, admiring their similarly-cut physiques. He, too, was once an athlete before he blew out his knee, and he sees a chance at redemption in his incredibly talented son. He’s got a solid relationship with his step-mom (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and aside having to yell at Emily (Taylor Russell), his not-too-much-younger sister when her cat itches up against his door, he gets along well with her as well. Most importantly to him, he’s got a wonderful girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), who loves and supports him in ways that his family can’t.

But that shoulder keeps bothering him, and a visit to a sports physician makes it crystal clear that something is terribly wrong with him. He’s got a grade-five SLAP (superior labrum anterior and posterior) tear, and the doc tells him that he’s got to stop wrestling as soon as he possibly can, and that surgery might be the only way for him to lead a somewhat normal, pain-free life. But he’s got college ahead of him, and he doesn’t want to let down his father or Alexis or any of his teammates, so he covers up the injury from all of them. Sure enough, the next time Tyler hits the mat for a match, he winds up doing permanent, lasting damage to his shoulder that totally ends his career. The dream is over, and his world is destroyed. The oxycodone he steals from his dad starts to become a permanent habit, and he starts hanging out with a pretty bad crowd, and before he knows it, another disaster strikes: Alexis tells him she’s pregnant. He reacts poorly, and the toxic cocktail of emotions in his adolescent brain — lust, fear, pain — propels him even further down.

It’s very hard to talk about things after this point in the narrative, simply because one doesn’t want to deaden the emotional impact that it has, because this here motherfucker packs a mean-ass punch. All I can really say is there comes a point in which Tyler does something so astonishingly evil in the heat of the moment at a party that it caused my entire theater to gasp, and it’s at that point that Shults’ film takes on a much, much different tone (suffice it to say, it is much worse than whatever William Staniforth Donahue did in his West Texas town). Emily is left to pick up the pieces after her brother’s actions have rent the family unit apart, and it’s during that difficult time that she becomes acquainted with Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s former wrestling teammates and a total goofball. They soon fall head-over-heels for each other, and Luke helps Emily process her emotions regarding her brother in a number of ways, and the family works itself towards some feeling of normalcy. Moreover, her own journey though her emotional landscape reflects our own, given how much we’ve come to hate Tyler and his action, and through her we’re able to process our feelings on the situation.

Waves is an incredibly empathetic film, but it never once manages to let our characters off the hook for their deeds, no matter how large or small. Shults presents reasons, both abstract and concrete, for Tyler’s behavior, not excuses, and refuses to let us see it in any other light other than for what it is. He interrogates the hearts of those involved in this tragic situation and offers them chances for healing, rather than redemption, which is what so many films like it do. Harrison is so good at playing up the conflict within his characters, and his work here is a huge reason why the movie works as well as it does: we see the child hidden in this adult body, reacting to the pressures and pulls of a world that is growing bigger and more complicated to him by the minute, as all of the things that he begins the film with — health, wealth, popularity, love — begin to abandon him. He is a monster talent, and between this and Luce, this year has been a fantastic one for him. 

But it is Shults’ show here, after all. He makes a number of superlative-worthy decisions throughout the course of Waves: From the minor, like his choice to just show phone screens in the middle of text battles between some of the characters instead of a cutesy graphic, allowing us to react along with them; to the major, in which he totally upends his traditional filmmaking style (if he can be accused of having one at this point of his young career) in order to craft some of the most electric depiction of adolescent troublemaking that one can find. The first hour of this film is essentially the “Jump into the Fire” sequence from Goodfellas extended to fit that length, in the way that the stress just mounts and mounts and we descend further and further into our fear and dread for this young man (assisted brilliantly by a fantastic Reznor and Ross score). As such, it might feel like the back-half of the film just lacks energy at first glance: When Benjamin is off-screen, it slows down tremendously, but I found the pacing to be worthy of the complicated feelings that Shults is trying to explore. Grief and forgiveness are both equally hard processes, which take time to soften and settle into normalcy. I’d also argue that the latter half is as well-written and acted as the first is edited and directed, and indicates more of a priority shift in Shults’ characters thinking more than anything else.

If all of Shults’ work up to this point has been about grief, be it for a distant, fucked-up relative or for the terrifying indifference and cruelty of a failing world, this is the first time he’s attempted to show us a way forward from that mindset. And that, I think, is where the Mountain Goats comparison comes into play, as this is an elegiac tribute to a life that could have been, perhaps, so, so much different. Waves is a leap forward for the director, and if his previous work didn’t entice you enough to pay attention to him, this certainly will slap you across the face with its mammoth power. It knocked me flat on my ass, that’s for sure.