Trey Edward Shults’s Waves is one of those films that is so good I don’t even feel qualified enough as a writer to review it, for fear that my cumbersome prose and tangential asides won’t properly impart the essence of the film and just how important this story is both to the ‘idea’ of the cinematic narrative and to our perception of life as a narrative in itself, encompassing our own individual trajectories, that of those around us and how they all interact, glide, and crash together in beautifully chaotic, poetically imperfect fashion as we move through the world. I’ll call this a ‘narrative flow’ instead of a story, and I don’t mean to sound pretentious but this really feels like an organic current as opposed to a scripted story, one can feel the super-sensible beats beneath what is onscreen in an unalloyed fashion that few films are able to achieve. This is basically a window of time into the life of an upper middle class African American family from Florida who fall victim to the same learning curves, tragedies, hard times and personal trials that every human being must weather and endure. The domineering, overbearing yet loving father (Sterling K. Brown), the quietly soulful and intuitive daughter (Taylor Russell), the athletic, emotionally overwhelmed son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and the supportive, compassionate stepmother (Renee Elise Goldsberry). The son is a rising star in a stable relationship with a girl he loves (Alexa Demie) and everything seems to be going just as it should.. until the unthinkable happens, and the narrative flow tears our hearts out before pivoting 180 degrees to focus on the daughter more, and her blossoming relationship with a boy she meets at school (Lucas Hedges). I won’t say more about these events beyond that because its so important to go into this one with open heart, mind and expectations. Every single actor in this film goes above and beyond to bring this piece to life, delving deep into their craft toolbox and emotional intelligence and providing painstakingly realistic cultivations that come across as actual complex, imperfect, intricate human beings free of character convention or any kind of cliche. My favourite performance has to be Taylor Russell as the daughter, who is an unbelievable find and shares a heartbreaking, soul-decimating scene with Brown as her father that anchors both their arcs and sees the two artists reach notes of performance I didn’t think possible in the medium. The title of this film is important n understanding what director Shults (who is now on my genius list, by the way) is trying to show us about human beings and the world: Waves crash along the shoreline, recede into the sea only to crash once more in apparent arbitration. As this process occurs, little ripples dapple the sandy coasts and billow out to form more ripples, currents and other shapes all across the canvas of the ocean, and this too seems to have no discernible order or symmetry. In the same fashion, human beings collide with one another in horrific acts of violence, deeply connected loving relationships and choices both constructive and destructive, only to do it all over again the next time round. These acts and choices ripple out across our collective consciousness and affect others in their choices, deeds and relationships and you just never know how one wave might affect someone else’s life, and that may seem terrifyingly random and alien to us, human beings who so badly crave order and reason, but is there not a beautiful disarray to the unpredictability of it all? This film is a brief aperture into the complexities of our world, and the characters that Shults presents to us couldn’t be more affecting or relatable in their struggles, choices and relationships. This film is nothing short of a masterpiece, from the dedicated vulnerability of the actors to the hazy, celestial coastal cinematography to the rapturous equilibrium employed in editing to the otherworldly electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and the wonderful, heartbreaking but ultimately life affirming narrative flow beneath it all. I couldn’t count high enough in my lifetime to give this an out of ten rating, which should give you an indication of how much I loved this film.
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird soars on wings of beautifully blunt dialogue, a traditionalist comic of age story that just somehow feels endlessly fresh with each new scene, three miraculous central performances from Saoirse Ronan, Beanie Feldstein and Laurie Metcalf, plus an editing style that creates lovely organic momentum and never falters for a beat. Coming of age stories are usually structured fairly similar across the board, and although all the recognizable chips are in place here, Gerwig has just managed to spin it in a way that still seems fresh and surprising. When you see that a film stars Saoirse Ronan, you pretty much know that it’s going to be an interesting project, if not an instant classic, she just seems to be a magnet for great scripts. The actress is on a career high here as Christine, or ‘Lady Bird’, her self given name, a feisty high school girl navigating the slippery terrain of being a teenager in a Sacramento Catholic high school. Exploring sex and relationships for the first time, clashing with her hotheaded mother (Metcalf in a fiery, complex and compassionate turn that practically demands an Oscar) over what college she’ll go to after grad (she has her sights set on those lofty east coast boroughs where “writers live in the woods”). Her father (understated, excellent Tracy Letts) is more laid back than her mom’s fire and brimstone approach, but both love her more than anything in their own way. All the restless turmoil and transformative angst of being that age is captured spectacularly by the story, somewhat of an autobiographical take on Gerwig’s own life in the early 2000’s. Broadway actress Beanie Feldstein is especially great as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and the scenes between the two have an un-coached, ‘fly on the wall’ realism that’s an admirable feat of acting from both. The film is very episodic, employing a brisk ‘fade in, fade out’ tactic with the editing, but despite that never feels staccato or segmented, all of it’s modest ninety minute runtime a fluid, flowing, near free-form anti-structure, a choice which works wonders and one that Gerwig and team should be very proud of. These types of stories always need a good dose of biting humour, a pinch of sadness and something unique to set them apart, as well as simply being well crafted and authentic. This one blasts off the charts in every category, and is one of the sweetest, most endearing and terrific films all year.
Irish writing/directing guru Martin McDonough has pulled a miraculous hat-trick with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, a pitch perfect follow up to his other two black dramedies, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. He’s an unbelievable talent who specializes in caustic, vigorously sharp dialogue and comic moments organically drawn from real life situations, not to mention a heap of earned emotional moments and narratives that, try as the viewer might, are impossible to predict. This is a near perfect bookend to the trilogy, with a late career encore turn from Frances Mcdormand, who cements an oddly Coen-esque vibe that’s welcome. She plays Mildred Hays here, a fiery single mother whose frustration and rage at the rape and murder of her teen daughter is fuelled into the purchase of three advertising billboards on the outskirts of town, calling out the Sheriff (Woody Harrelson) and his department for their lack of arrests or convictions. Needless to say, this brazen act causes a hailstorm Of events both funny and sad, strange and mundane, but never boring. Harrelson is a blast of potent poignancy as Chief Willoughby, a stern family man who laconically protests the Billboards, but understands the poor woman’s intentions. His arc is one that leaves you puzzled and tugs at the heartstrings unexpectedly, especially when it comes to his relationship with his beautiful wife (Abbie Cornish, most excellent). Sam Rockwell is the height of hilarity as Dixon, a certifiably nuts, volatile man-child of a deputy who violently takes matters into his own hands and exacerbates the whole deal wonderfully with his antics. Rockwell was a dynamo enough in Seven Psychos, and here he takes that loony persona into the stratosphere, a whirling dervish of bizarre, idiosyncratic wonderment. Other standouts include Peter Dinklage as a love-struck dwarf that everyone refers to as a midget, John Hawkes as Mildred’s troubled ex husband, Lucas Hedges as her traumatized son and Caleb Landry Jones as an oddball local advertising mogul. McDonough’s calling card is his defiant refusal to tell a story in Hollywood’s glossy, surface level terms, deliberately punctuating his tales with vagueness, eccentricity and constant reminders that people, emotions, characters and narratives are complex, weird concepts which are seldom black and white or clear cut in any direction. The arcs here are broad, surprising and beautifully drawn, with the same deep set sadness he brought us In Bruges, accented by the acidic, dysfunctional and cheerfully profane writing that showed up in Seven Psychos. This is a film that ducks the pesky limbo bar of standards set by the Hollywood machine in favour of something more unique, a road less travelled when it comes to comedy dramas, but one that anyone seeking fresh, alive and different material would be much rewarded trekking down. One of the best films of the year.