WAVES (2019)

November 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether in sports or music or movies, watching talent blossom and grow is wondrous. For movie lovers, this describes young filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, whose first feature film KRISHA really grabbed me at a film festival in 2016. His follow-up was the critically acclaimed IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), and now with only his third film, Mr. Shults has delivered an even more ambitious story with wide-reaching impact, yet he remains true to his intimate and personal approach. In fact, with WAVES, he basically delivers two brilliant films in one.

A terrific opening credits sequence takes us inside the life of a teenager. There is constant motion, laughter, the longing for independence, and signs of responsibility and structure. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr, LUCE, 2019) is a high school student, talented athlete, pianist, son, brother, and boyfriend. He’s living an upper-middle class life in a beautiful home with his dad (a powerhouse Sterling K Brown), stepmom (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and younger sister Emily (breakout star Taylor Russell). His dad owns a construction company, and is tough and demanding as a parent, incessantly pushing his son to do and be more. His fatherly advice comes in the form of telling Tyler that black men have to work harder than white ones … never stopping to give praise or affection. He’s the type of father who challenges his son to arm wrestle while in a restaurant and critiques his wrestling match victory by telling him the lesser opponent should have been dispatched much quicker. The pressure is relentless, though offered with the best intentions … a college scholarship and a successful life.

Tyler’s stepmom is loving and supportive, and his sister Emily is very sweet and quiet, living in the shadows of big brother. Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) seem to have a good relationship and Tyler appears to be dealing with the pressures. But then, as is common with life at this age, things go sideways quickly. A shoulder injury, self-medication, and Alexis’ late period bring this ideal world crashing down on Tyler. Just when it seems things can’t get worse, they do.

Shults’ film is really two love stories separated by a tragic line. Whereas the first half belongs to Tyler, the second half is owned by his sister Emily. Dealing with a situation and emotions that should be beyond her maturity level, Emily proves how strong she is, and how the heart can always respond to compassion and caring. She meets one of Tyler’s ex-teammates Luke (yet another brilliant Lucas Hedges performance). Luke is socially clumsy and 180 degrees from being a smooth-talker, but he’s smitten with Emily and offers her a lovely, if unlikely, companionship. First love is almost always awkward and watching these two navigate is quite charming and heart-warming. A road trip leads to bonding and a better understanding of each other.

As the film shifts in focus and tone, characters are pushed to emotional limits. The film offers snapshots of moments without disturbing the flow or Shults’ commitment to rich texture. The photography from cinematographer Drew Daniels is creative and varied, and adds much to the presentation. Music is also vital here. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds the perfect touch, and the soundtrack contrasts the tastes of today’s generation with what the parents relate to (Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes”), even forming a surprising connection at one point. For other fans of Shults’ film KRISHA, you will enjoy a quick scene with Krisha Fairchild as a high school teacher.

Proms, pregnancy, parties, pills, and parents are all common topics for films dealing with teens, but this one digs deeper than most. It’s based in south Florida and is quite the stylish and heartfelt drama, slicing open the traits that make us human. A lifetime of good decisions builds a foundation, and one or two bad choices can topple all the good ones. When Tyler and his teammates are pumping up before a match with chants of “I cannot be taken down!”, we all know that life can absolutely take you down. Tyler learns this lesson in the harshest of ways, while his sister Emily deals with the aftermath. Themes of acceptance and forgiveness give this the feeling of the work of a much more experienced filmmaker, but evidently Trey Edward Shults is just this talented.

watch the trailer:


BRIGSBY BEAR (2017)

August 10, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Many kids get obsessed with their favorite TV show and characters. Perhaps it’s Minnie Mouse, Sesame Street or even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whatever or whomever it is, they typically enjoy sharing their experiences with their friends. When we first meet James, he is staring, fully-engaged, at an odd, poorly produced show that appears to be a relic from the 1970’s. His room is packed with franchised merchandise like a bedspread, a lamp, toys, and even a stuffed animal. We immediately notice two problems: we don’t recognize this talking TV bear and James appears to be not a child, but a twenty-something with a 3 day beard growth.

Kyle Mooney has gained a following with his work (especially his quirky short films) on “Saturday Night Live”. Here he collaborates with director Dave McCrary (another SNL stalwart) and co-writer Kevin Costello on their first feature film. Mr. Mooney also stars as James, the “Brigsby Bear” expert who was kidnapped as an infant, held captive in a desert bunker and brainwashed by his captor “parents” Ted and April (an excellent Mark Hamill, Jane Adams).

Being confined and isolated in a controlled environment with only artificial culture in no way prepares James for the long-delayed release back into the wild known as society. His biological parents Greg and Louise (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins) are thrilled to reunite with their long lost son, and very patient with James’ struggles to assimilate.

James is unceremoniously dumped into the real world without his one security blanket: a TV bear that doesn’t exist. He goes from being disconnected from the outside world to being disconnected inside a new world he doesn’t know or recognize. Despite the pressures he is up against (police, family, new friends), he refuses to let go of his obsession.

It’s at this point where we really root for Mooney and McCrary to embrace the weirdness. Instead, the story takes a bit of a conventional turn and we find ourselves no longer reveling in oddity, but instead cheering for James to continue influencing those who initially viewed him as the proverbial fish out of water. The film ends up as a creative story about creativity … if that’s what it’s about (or if it’s about anything).

Strong supporting work is provided by Greg Kinnear as Detective Vogel (with a secret passion), Ryan Simpkins (sister of Ty) as James’ somewhat reluctant sister, and Alexa Demie and Jorge Lendeborg Jr as the new friends who come to appreciate him for his perspective. Claire Danes is a misguided psychiatrist, Buck Bennett is a detective, Andy Samburg appears an acquaintance, and Kate Lyn Scheil is Arielle (and Nora).

The film can best be described as Funny-Sad, and a blend of ROOM (isolated and held captive), NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (a quirky dude), BEING THERE (an innocence that influences others), and ENCINO MAN (a guy being introduced to a new world). It has an emotional and heartfelt climax that is crowd-pleasing, and certainly deserves bonus points for not being a superhero movie, remake, sequel or reboot. Still, it leaves us wondering what direction this could have gone had the filmmakers remained true to the cause of embracing the weirdness.

watch the trailer: