Waves (2019)

Directed by Trey Edward Shults

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Not to make a terrible pun out of the title, but Waves really does feel like you’re standing four feet into the ocean tide, with the water level rising and sinking in rapid succession.  At times it flows so damn well, a free-flowing visual poem that washes soothingly around you.  Other times it comes to a complete standstill with no forward momentum.

The film is broken into two halves that feel a little too disconnected.  Within that, however, both halves have moments of strength, when the film works like a Terrence Malick film (someone for whom Shults worked for a time), with the camera observing these characters’ lives like in a dream or a memory.  It’s a rapid succession of images and sound, the camera moving quickly from one place and time to another with no necessary explanation for where and when we are.  It’s pure emotion.

But then the film does get bogged down in plot, a rather melodramatic one even as it buries itself in tragedy.  And together I don’t think it mixes, like two perfectly fine ingredients that just don’t make a good dish.

What I like about Terrence Malick’s films, specifically his later ones, is how they actively resist plot.  There needs to be no story, and the films are better for purposefully omitting all the connective tissue that typically stitches together a conventionally plotted movie.  If anything, getting rid of any plot frees the film up to be about so much more, things you can’t always put your finger on but things you may feel.  It becomes an experience, just like a dream is an experience because you never quite know what you’re going to see next.

But if you introduce plot to that equation I think it cannibalizes the impact of the visual poetry.  You can have one or the other but not both, and I have a hard time figuring out why.

So Waves bounces back and forth between two different movies, even as it steps from one narrative to another.  Either half/narrative of the film oscillates between the free-flowing visual poetry of a Malick film and the melodrama of, what I don’t know, something else.

But if the film stumbles then it stumbles for the right reasons.  There is so much on display here, from the film’s overall style and clear influences to its ambition, the cinematography, the perhaps over-reliance on music, the acting, etc.  It’s all rather magnetic for the most part, even as it straddles moments that lose any momentum as we segue from a dreamlike moment to one that is burdened with pushing the story forward.

So it’s big and grand, and it very much wants to be big and grand.  I think that ambition does get in the way of the film as a whole, but maybe that was always going to be the case.  The film is advertised in a way that tells you nothing about the plot but insists that “Waves will tear your heart out.”  So the PR push for the movie announces not what its about but rather just that it will be successful.

So already that’s a hill to climb, to declare that ‘this will be amazing’ and then to have to deliver on that.

But then maybe that’s what melodrama is.  It’s getting inside the head of someone and ramping everything else up to match the emotion that person feels on the inside.  The two halves of the film deal with different siblings, both as they deal with incredible loss and, presumably, a first romance.  There are severe highs and lows, and so it makes sense that everything, the ups and downs, would feel so heightened.

It’s a film about teenagers and teenagers don’t casually navigate their feelings and experiences.  It’s a dramatic time in one’s life, and this is a dramatic movie.

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