Wow! I was not expecting to have to adjust my Top 10 picks for 2019 but I just might have to after finally seeing "Waves," albeit a little later than I wanted. I just wasn't expecting to like it so much being the follow-up for Trey Edwards Shults' "It Comes at Night" which I did not enjoy.
"Waves," however, ticked all my boxes. From a narrative that is more driven by character than plot to cinematography which reinforces the themes of the film to just a couple scenes of high school wrestling (a sport I participated in and which is also criminally under represented) this film, in any other year than 2019, would have been my favorite film of the year.
Beginning with the acting and characters, I have to say that every actor delivers raw performances that feel incredibly authentic. The movie focuses on an African American family but it was written by white man and so has drawn some ire from well intention-ed watchers of the movie but I have to say that everything that I saw in the film, watched in interviews with him and his African American cast, and read about in articles leads me to believe that he did a fantastic job of owning his limitations and reaching out and trusting the voices of his actors to ensure that the voices seemed as authentic as possible.
I want to pick out a performance and say something like Sterling K. Brown ("Black Panther," 2018) is a stand out among a well performing cast but I just can't. The ENTIRE cast does an amazing job and while each one has scenes or aspects that I would highlight, I would only be doing so at the expense of other great actors and performances. This is an especially admirable feat as many of the characters are young, which can sometimes be a pitfall for a serious film.
Another thing I like about this film, and feel is likely to be the least talked about aspect of it, is the sweeping scope of it. Essentially, the film is a family tragedy/recovery story which could have been shot and acted as cheesy melodrama. However, "Waves" has a sweeping feel to it like you are not just watching the story of one family but of all families akin to "If Beale Street Could Talk" where one couple seems to stand in for many African American couples. Here, our family seems to represent almost any family in America. Even though it is about an African American family and they deal with specific problems, at times, which I will never have to deal with as a white man the moments where I felt myself identifying with the sentiments and feelings of the characters were almost constant.
I believe that this is because none of the particularly African American experiences were framed as being the experiences of certain people of a certain race. They were framed as the problems of human beings. I may see the father in this film as overbearing but he says some things which hit hard to my core like, 'We gotta work 100 times harder to get anywhere.' That is a particular feeling of American Black culture that I will never really know in the way they do but it sounds like my coach in high school and teachers I have had. It has me recalling those feelings of weakness in the face of tremendous odds, a mentor aided push to the next level, and a desire to never disappoint someone who would be that real with me.
The narrative of this film does an excellent job of replicating the way that reality feels. People we love do terrible things, people keep things inside where they can destroy rather than opening themselves up to shame, and it takes more than one event or kind word to bring catharsis after pain. One of the reasons these things work so well is that the events that happen to these characters feel, at the same time, both the sole result of our characters understandable actions and reactions as well as totally out of any one person's control. This reflection of life as being in our own power to direct but also the product of the whims of fate is something that anyone can understand and identify with. This experience is true to people whether they are black or white, male/female/trans/etc., Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/etc., rich or poor.
I heartily recommend this film as I think it speaks to issues that are very human and universal in a way that few films, save the great masterpieces, even attempt. This one not only set it's bar higher than most films, it cleared that bar with beauty, grit, and grace.