Toronto Film Festival: Waves Solidifies Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a Rising Star

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Kelvin Harrison Jr continues to prove himself to be top talent. The cinematography and score help complement the more than solid acting to make this film one that audiences won't want to miss
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No matter the complexity and effort put into building a sand castle, all it takes is for the tide to come in and the waves to start hitting the sand for it all to start slowly eroding away.

On the surface, Ronald (Sterling K Brown) and his family are living the dream. From the context clues as the film opens up, we can deduce that this is a well-to-do black family. Both parents have successful careers with Ronald owning his own construction company. His wife, Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is also running her own business. Their son Taylor (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star wrestling athlete with a girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), he loves and everything is going his way. Their daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) is focused on her studies. Everything seems perfect. But much like that perfect sand castle standing tall on the beach, as soon as the waves start coming in, the once sturdy foundation quickly erodes away.

Waves: Taylor & Emily sit across from their parents Catherine & Ronald at a diner table

Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

If there’s one thing that black parents continuously drill into their children it’s that the world will always judge them for the color of their skin and not the content of their character and that in order to succeed, they will have to twice as hard. Now don’t get me wrong, both of those statements are generally true.  However, one thing that is rarely discussed is what this pursuit of perfection and fear of failure does to the psyche of black children. In Waves we see that this desire to never show a moment of weakness is passed from father to son. Its toxicity disguised as love. After Taylor wins one of his wrestling matches, Ronald forces him to practice a few more hours after because he believed Taylor would have pinned his opponent sooner if he had done it the way Ronald told him. While on its own it just seems like a father pushing his son to be the best, when combined with other moments from Ronald, it becomes clear that Ronald is trying to live vicariously through his son and is pushing Taylor to the point of putting perfection above everything else. When Taylor starts slipping up and his mistakes become harder and harder to mask, instead of feeling like he can go to his parents and discuss things, he tries to fix them himself, leading to disastrous results.

Reuniting with It Comes at Night director Trey Edward Shults, Kelvin Harrison Jr is quickly rocketing towards the status of must watch actors. He put in a riveting performance in Luce as the definition of calm, cool and collected. In Waves, he’s playing the exact opposite character as Taylor slowly loses control of his structured world with each bad decision he makes. Pairing Harrison and Sterling K Brown together is magical. Brown is one of those actors who seems to have chemistry with just about anyone he’s paired up on screen with. This is important since while the main storyline of Waves revolve around the children Taylor and Emily, their behavior and arcs are closely dependent on their relationship with Ronald. Ronald’s toxicity seeps into every member of the family and affects them in different ways. Ronald and Catherine’s marriage seems fine until you start noticing the subtle looks and tone of responses that Goldberry uses that reveal that her character may be presenting something different from how she’s truly feeling. In the first half of the film, Emily seems almost as an afterthought and is barely seen or heard from. What seems like an oversight in the script at first becomes clear as an active choice from a narrative point of view that is addressed in film. And once again, at the center of that is Ronald and how his behavior has affected his relationship with his family.

Cinematically, Waves is one of the most well shot films I’ve seen this year. That should come as no surprise. Shults’ It Comes At Night was not one of my favorite movies from a story perspective but as a piece of cinematography it was magnificent. The way that film was shot plus the use of the soundtrack really shined and with Waves, Trey Edward Shults has now combined both with a great story. This is a beautifully shot film and the music selection is used perfectly to fully engage the audience in scenes. As I watched this film, the bold and bright colors used in lighting as well as set design making black character pop on screen reminded me so much of Moonlight. It’s long overdue for others in Hollywood to start making better use of color when shooting dark skinned black people in movies. The colors plus the use of 360 tracking shots really help immerse audiences into scenes.

Waves is a lot of movie and that’s meant in a positive way. It’s a good examination of how putting pressure on kids without giving them the opportunity to make mistakes and not feel like failures can have disastrous consequences. That’s not to excuse the choices or continuation of toxic behavior but there should be a conversation on how the pursuit of perfection can be devastating. Waves was one of my favorite movies of the Toronto Film Festival and it’s one that I think everyone should check out.


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