Trey Edward Shults follows up his indie critical hits Krisha and It Comes at Night with Waves, an extremely uneven drama that combines the manipulative hysterics of Alejandro González Iñárritu with the hazy vaporwave aesthetics of a Frank Ocean video. It’s admittedly a film extremely of its time, but unlike some other films that have managed to pull the wool over my eyes through extreme timeliness, the seams show through Waves. Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars as Tyler, a high school wrestling star with an outwardly perfect life: a loving family (Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Taylor Russell), good academic standing, a lovely girlfriend (Alexa Demie)… But things are cracking just under the facade: Tyler has a serious injury that he’s completely ignoring in order to preserve the upcoming wrestling season, and he’s decided to push through it with the help of oxycodone. Tyler’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, sending shockwaves through his family, but his series of bad decisions finally leads to a tragic event that simply can’t be kicked under the carpet.
Filled with timely needledrops (Kendrick, Frank Ocean, Animal Collective, etc.) and flashy camerawork (every scene in a car is shot from the middle of the car and spins out on itself constantly, which is both nauseating and a great way to have your viewer assume that every car scene will end in a fiery crash), Waves consistently teeters on the line between style and substance. It’s not that there isn’t substance, mind you — Shults attempts to pack in every social ill of the modern era from racism to drug abuse to abortion, but he wraps it up in such a showy package it’s impossible not to equate it to the world’s hippest after-school special. The first hour of Waves builds to a crescendo of misery that would make the aforementioned Iñárritu beam with pride.
The second hour (which focuses on Tyler’s sister Emily, played by Taylor Russell, and her blossoming relationship with a charmingly awkward fellow student played by Lucas Hedges) is considerably more nuanced than what comes before it, even if it continues to showcase the iPhone commercial aesthetics and trite post-Magnolia “everybody hurts” message. The performances are uniformly strong across the board, but Waves is a good example of too much not being enough.
Waves opens in theatres on Nov. 1.
Director Ladj Ly grew up in les Bosquets in Montfermeil — the very same place where Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is set. Montfermeil doesn’t quite have the same demographics now, however. It’s a French banlieue, a disenfranchised world of concrete apartment buildings inhabited by a largely black and Muslim population. Ly turns his camera towards his hometown through the eyes of Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), a big city cop who joins the Montfermeil police force after he moves there to be closer to his son. Stéphane is immediately paired up with Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djibril Zonga), a couple of real dickhead cops who run les Bosquets with an iron fist. Stéphane has a lot of trouble understanding the precarious balance that has been worked out between the cops and inhabitants of les Bosquets; Chris and Gwada’s unconventional, overly familiar methods are off-putting to him, which immediately causes a rift between the student and the masters. The day gets exponentially worse when a young boy is accused of stealing a lion cub (!) from a Romani circus, which suddenly has tensions flaring and the cops turning the suburb upside down to find the missing cub.
Les misérables strikes a nearly perfect balance between being entertaining and being “about something,” so to speak. It’s a difficult prospect to make a film about police brutality in 2019 that’s from the police’s point of view, but Ly’s perspective that everything is chaos all the time (certainly in the banlieue) gives the film some welcome levity. Shot documentary-style, Les misérables gets up close to the action at all times and refuses to take moralistic positions, which is not likely to win over everyone in the current climate. Nevertheless, it’s difficult for a film to strike this kind of balance even in the best of times, which is a testament to Ly’s work here.
Les Misérables opens in theatres on Nov. 22.
Ira Sachs makes small-scale movies about large-scale issues. His last few films have been about gentrification and drug addiction, relatable issues (usually plaguing New Yorkers) that nevertheless tend not to ripple out into the world. Frankie is a bit of a departure from his usual work in that sense: it’s set in Europe and revolves around a famous actress that is recognized by nearly everyone, but its sense of drama remains resolutely plugged into the small-scale and the minor key.
Frankie (Isabelle Huppert) is a world-famous actress who has brought her extended family out for a Portuguese vacation: her current husband Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her first husband Michel (Pascal Greggory), Jimmy’s daughter Sylvia (Vinette Robinson) and her husband and daughter (Ariyon Bakare and Sennia Nanua), Frankie’s spoiled son Paul (Jérémie Rénier) and Irene (Marisa Tomei), a friend of Frankie’s who she thinks would be perfect for her son – if it weren’t for the fact that she’s shown up with a boyfriend (Greg Kinnear) in tow. You see, Frankie’s dying, and what she wants more than anything is to have everyone gathered in the same place one last time.
Frankie is an ensemble piece that plays like a character sketch. It’s droll and ambling and lackadaisical and almost completely lacking in propulsion, a series of cute tableaus that never quite add up to a whole. It reminds me more than anything of Grown Ups (stay with me here) for the New York intellectual set: a charming lead playing a thinly veiled version of themselves surrounded by people with not much to do in a picturesque vacation locale. It ultimately ends on a sort of vague note, because the whole point wasn’t the destination but the way you get there. To call any Ira Sachs movie “minor” is beside the point, but if there was ever such a thing, this would be it.
Frankie opens in theatres on Nov. 8.
Sweetness in the Belly
It’s inevitable that this tale of a white Ethiopian woman (Dakota Fanning) moving to the U.K. and using her white privilege to help refugees she sees as exactly the same as her is going to attract negative attention for the way its narrative jumps through so many hoops on its way to becoming a white-centric story. It goes without saying that while there have historically been white Ethiopians, they’re not exactly the most obvious or well-placed people to base a tale of revolution and displacement around. That having been said, Sweetness in the Belly at least touches upon the position of privilege that Lilly Abdel finds herself in, but it’s just a pitstop on the way to a bog-standard drama-in-the-face-of-revolution festival movie of aggressively average quality.
I guess whatever fundamental problems it has also stems from the novel it’s based on, which tells the story of a young girl abandoned by her British parents in the early ’60s and raised in a Sufi temple. Lilly knows nothing of “white” life when she escapes Ethiopia for England, where her white skin and birth name causes the authorities to give her lodging above her other Ethiopian friends. Alongside her friend Amina (Wunmi Mosaku), she starts an organization to help separated Ethiopian families find each other — knowing in her heart that her real motivation is to reconnect with a dreamy doctor (Yayha Abdul-Mateen II) she knew back home while also being pursued by a significantly more awkward doctor (Kunal Nayyar) at the London hospital she finds a job in.
That dreamy doctor and everything connected to him (except Abdul-Mateen II’s performance, which is superlatively charming) is likely what brings Sweetness in the Belly from “unique story of immigration” to “cloying drama that reminds me of the ill-advised Angelina Jolie vehicle Beyond Borders.” The love story is so present in the film that it stomps over everything else and flattens it out into a soap opera. None of this is precisely director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari’s fault — it’s all from the novel, and its intentions are good — but good intentions can only get you so far.
Sweetness in the Belly does not yet have a release date. ■
See our previous reports from TIFF 2019 here.