Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Trey Edward Shults is giving us his third feature film. Shults is from Texas and he interned or worked as a production assistant on three films by Terrence Malick. This feature certainly feels more inspired or takes more of its influences from Malick than Shults’ last feature. The way Shults wields the camera and the kinds of sequences he crafts are very much akin or a homage to Malick’s cinematography and his editing. Shults doesn’t mimic Malick’s direction completely. There is no voice-over narration here, for example. Shults also focuses his camera on characters that Malick normally doesn’t, that of African-American characters.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a young black actor, still young enough to be playing teenagers on screen. He’s been popping up in major productions for the past five years now, but his most outstanding role was in Shults’ previous feature, It Comes At Night (2017). However, Harrison starred in a small, independent film this past summer called Luce (2019), which is probably the most comparable on a thematic level to this film here. In Luce, Harrison played a high school student who is under pressure to be the best and to be the most excellent in a certain field and that pressure leads him or causes him to hurtful or destructive behavior. Here, he plays Tyler Williams, a high school student who is under the same pressure.
Tyler is a senior athlete who plays on the school’s wrestling team. In Luce, he was under pressure from his teacher. Here, Tyler is under pressure from his father. Yet, in both films, that pressure stems from the same place and that’s this idea of black excellence. There is this idea that black people have to be excellent and beyond excellent just to survive in a world where white people only have to be average, if not less than. The sentiment is echoed that black people have to work twice as hard to get half as much. This sentiment is derived from racism and the legacy of it. Why this film and Luce are good companion pieces is because both show the psychological damage or emotional toll that such a sentiment can have on a young black man, especially if the people conveying that sentiment do so with such bluntness or harshness and seemingly no mercy.
Sterling K. Brown (Frozen II and Black Panther) co-stars as Ronald Williams, the father to Tyler. He’s the one here who conveys that sentiment with such bluntness or harshness and seemingly no mercy. He’s a tough father on his son. Ronald’s actions and attitude don’t seem all that bad, but through his wife Catherine, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry, the Tony and Grammy-winning actress from Hamilton, we see the fear that he’s pushing his son too hard. It’s never explicitly stated, only through subtle hints, but it seems as if Ronald is trying to live vicariously or recapture some athletic glory through his son that he used to have or perhaps lost due to physical injuries himself. The film never delves into that possibility or more of the backstory of Ronald, which is a clear missed opportunity.
Taylor Russell (Escape Room and Before I Fall) plays Emily Williams, the younger sister to Tyler. She’s only a grade or two behind him. She’s probably a sophomore or junior. She goes to the same high school. After a traumatic event, the film shifts focus and Emily becomes the relative protagonist. She deals with the aftermath of a tragedy. She experiences the various emotions of such a tragedy, the depression, the isolation, the fear, the anger and blame. Russell’s performance is probably the most outstanding of all the actors here, which shows in the fact that her performance has been the most nominated for awards at various places.
However, the back half of this film concentrates more on Emily’s relationship with another high school student named Luke, played by young Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea and Lady Bird). edges is a tremendous actor and his presence here is a sweet and even sexy reprieve from the bluntness and harshness that dominate the first half of the film. However, Emily and Luke’s romance is too much of a diversion, especially when all of a sudden the film is derailed so that Luke can deal with issues with his own father. I call it a diversion because it takes away from the film dealing with Tyler and Emily’s issues with their father, which the film never really circles back to conclude or address.
Rated R for language, drug and alcohol use, sexual content and brief violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 15 mins.
In select cities, including Dover.