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With Waves, Trey Edward Shults captures pain, loneliness and loss in a bottle. You should take a sip

Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks to honour Michelle Lang, the Calgary Herald reporter killed in Afghanistan in 2009, on Nov. 9, 2019.
Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks to honour Michelle Lang, the Calgary Herald reporter killed in Afghanistan in 2009, on Nov. 9, 2019.

You may call this time of year fall or autumn, but for film critics its Oscar season, which means studios are rolling out their prestige, awards-hopeful projects. And every last one of them seems to think that it can’t be a contender if it doesn’t last for at least two hours.

It’s arbitrary and at times infuriating, but every so often a film justifies its autumnal running time. Waves (two hours and 15 minutes) is one such story, in part because it’s really two stories. The first half follows the life of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high-school student in suburban Florida.

He seems busy and well rounded, active in sports, school, church and family. But as the plot unfurls – and as the bombastic score and flashy colour palette suggests – Tyler is under a lot of pressure. His young body needs surgery from being pushed too hard in wrestling; he’s self-medicating on painkillers and alcohol; his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) may be pregnant; and his parents are sympathetic but unaware of how bad things are. You can sense a crisis building.

Tyler has a sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and in the second half the film suddenly pivots adroitly to become her story, as she meets a sweet boy (Lucas Hedges) and tries to figure out her own life. This in the wake of an event that will change the lives of every member of the family.

Waves is the newest from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, whose 2017 film It Comes at Night was enjoyed by critics – 87% at Rottentomatoes – but not so much by audiences, who gave it 44%, and a D at Cinemascore. That’s probably because the movie sold itself as a horror and then delivered some excellent family drama, but not much in the way of scares.

No such worries with Waves; go in expecting a powerful and deeply emotional story and you won’t be disappointed. The film signals as much from the opening scene, which features an explosion of light and noise; even the title seems ready to break out of the edges of the screen.

Shults also plays with the film’s aspect ratio, in what seems to be the signature artistic flourish of 2019 – see The Lighthouse (almost square image), The Laundromat (subtle shift in one chapter) or Lucy in the Sky (sudden, obvious, frequent and frankly annoying changes). Or note the furore that erupted when Disney’s new streaming service got the ratio wrong in The Simpsons.

It’s an understated technique in Waves, but the effect is to box Tyler into a smaller space as the pressure on him grows. The sound design is equally innovative, with a well-timed scream – scarier than anything in It Comes at Night! – and a score that assaults the audience with volume one moment and silence the next. It’s like leaning into a strong wind that suddenly dies, leaving you stumbling.

The plot is a perfect example of the paradox by which the specific becomes universal. The events in Tyler’s and Emily’s young lives illustrate larger truths. We all feel pain and loneliness – different circumstances, but the same emotions. And we all lose people – they die, or they move away from us, or we from them – again, differently but the same. With Waves, Shults has captured that specificity in a bottle. All audiences have to do is open it up and take a sip.

4 stars

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

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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