Waves and The Lighthouse: Craft Over Content

Recently, I’ve seen two films that put craft ahead of content, failing to truly capture my attention.

Waves, the new feature by Trey Edward Schults, is actually two films depicting different stories within the same family. The first tells the story of the brother, the second tells the story of the sister. Personally, I could have watched the second without the first. During a question and answer session after the screening, Schults said he wanted to create two immersive experiences side by side. While I respect his intention, his level of immersion made me nauseous and therefore it was difficult to watch the film. 

The first half focuses on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a highschool wrestler dating Alexis (Alexa Demie). Tyler is pushed by his father (Sterling K Brown) to be stronger and win despite his constant pain and secret addictions. In order to make the experience immersive, Schults often puts the teens in a car, singing along to loud music as high school students do. However, while the car was moving, the camera was also spinning around in order to capture each person within the vehicle, hence my nausea. Throughout, the amount of strobe lights overwhelmed  my eyes, making it difficult to watch. Not only was the music often too loud for my liking, but it seemed to take the place of dialogue altogether in Tyler’s story. While it is easy to say the lack of dialogue is due to Tyler’s inability to voice his true feelings, that seems like a cop out. In a sense, Schults’ intense focus on immersion caused Tyler to be less empathetic and interesting even though the story’s success rests on you rooting for him. Instead, he just came off as angry. His anger is understandable given his circumstances, yet the rare moments when Tyler confesses and cries are what moved me the most and displayed the deep connection between him and his sister. In making immersion a priority, Schults fails to give time and attention to the interiority of Tyler.

However, Schults flexes his empathetic muscles in the second half focusing on Emily (an astonishing Taylor Russell), Tyler’s younger sister. Thankfully, I didn’t walk out of the movie before her story. After a family tragedy, we see Emily struggle to make friends at school, her silence often the product of solitude. When Luke (an equally impressive Lucas Hedges) comes into her life, they slowly start to open up to each other and find out they have more in common than they thought. The music is still front and center, but there are many emotional and compelling conversations that take place not just between Emily and Luke, but also between Emily and her family. While Schults frames these differences as immersion, that seems like the easy way out of criticism. The film’s violence against Alexis is immersion. The film’s lack of interest in Alexis is immersion. The nauseating camera angles are immersion. The loud music is immersion. Schults is clearly talented and able to create an emotional impact, yet the conceit of the film lessened my enjoyment. 

In a similar vein, Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse failed to leave any emotional impact on me at all. Starring Willem Dafoe (my #1 crush) and Robert Pattinson, the film tells the story of two lighthouse keepers. This film is highly obsessed with craft. Done in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio and filmed on 35mm, this movie is gorgeous, truly immersing the viewer in the cold misery of 1890s New England. In addition to the aspect ratio, the costumes are great and both Pattinson and Dafoe give very strong performances. Unfortunately, no matter how beautiful and shakespearean Dafoe’s lines sound, I could not for the life of me understand what he was going on about. One thing I did learn is that one should NEVER kill a seabird under any circumstances. Pattinson’s role mostly consisted of him being the viewer’s ally in frustration regarding Dafoe’s superfluous language and overall demeanor. Other than that, the film generally felt too long for a story that is simple and as old as time. No man is an island and if you try to put him on one he will go crazy and dream of fucking a mermaid. 

Despite what I found to be visual conceits, Schults and Egger’s visual talent is impressive and I am excited to see what both do next.

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