Director Edward Trey Shults
USA (136 mi) 2019 d: Edward Trey Shults
An ambitious project that feels troubled right off the bat, as a white director attempts to tell an extremely personalized suburban black story in South Florida, with mixed results, especially when relying upon pyrotechnic visual effects and loud, explosive music to set the mood, where the aggressive stylistic flourishes feel audaciously overdone, like the narcotic induced dream landscape where all moral boundaries have been crossed in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers (2012), growing awkwardly pretentious, relying upon stereotypes, feeling utterly cliché’d, particularly the view of an angry, out of control black teenager, Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler, where the feeling in the room is that this is the wrong messenger for this film. In fact, the initial story has racist implications when told from a white director, turning the lead character into an O.J. Simpson figure in high school, a testosterone driven athlete flying into a jealous rage, as if crazed by madness, becoming the stereotypical angry black man as projected by whites, where he becomes the personification of pure evil. His spoiled arrogance and sense of entitlement is more reflective of white suburban mentality than black, where the enormity of the house is mindboggling, something rarely seen in black films. Even in the aftermath of this agitated turmoil, a white character swoops in and falls in love with a young black girl, another white idealization, where the first half is cringeworthy in its problematic and embarrassingly shallow racial depiction, steeped in the exaggerated melodrama of an afterschool special, almost deserving of a walk-out. However, due to the ambitious nature of the film, it shifts into something else altogether for the second half, reminiscent of Ned Benson’s 2014 Top Ten List #8 The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, changing focus to a different character, Tyler’s younger sister Emily who was a nonfactor until then, becoming quieter, more somberly reflective, targeting her inner sanctum, where the actress Taylor Russell is surprisingly good, adding length, altering the emphasis of the story to a female perspective, allowing new interior life to breathe and rediscover itself. Losing the overeliance on overtly masculine, music video effects, the film calms down and becomes more poetically effective. Still, it’s a mysteriously strange film that is all over the map in terms of a compelling emotional odyssey, using American landscapes to break free and enlarge the spacious overall reach.
Tyler is a high school senior on the wrestling team, a highly competitive sport that is driven by overly zealous coaches that push them to the limits, as does his domineering father (Sterling K. Brown), who instills obsessive habits, training him personally, where the male authority figures teach him to become superhuman, that to become a champion he’ll need to ignore the pain and all outside noise, focusing only upon winning. While most wrestlers are extremely conscientious about what they eat or drink, maintaining strict weight requirements, Tyler can be seen partying with rambunctious friends indulging in alcohol and drugs, while also stealing pain pills from his father that he eats like candy to cover for an undisclosed injury on his shoulder that turns out to career ending, yet he stupidly refuses to listen, as if he’s invincible, while hiding the truth from his parents, pretending he’s fine, until he permanently injures himself in a match, which completely changes his identity, as being the strongest guy is no longer who he is. More importantly, his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) announces she’s pregnant, where he goes through the motions of being sympathetic, taking her to an abortion clinic, but she’s severely affected by the protesters outside and changes her mind. The wheels fall apart after that, as she wants to keep the baby, which drives him apoplectic, as he can’t control her behavior. His rage is so significant that she breaks up with him and cuts him off her phone, even going to the school prom with another guy, which sends Tyler so out of control that he drinks heavily, tears up his room in anger, steals his father’s car keys, then throws him out of the way before heading out for the school prom where he literally stalks Alexis, cornering her in a remote area, flying into an angered rage before physically assaulting her, leaving her inert on the ground, not moving. The sounds of a girl screaming at what she sees sends him bolting out the door, leaving the scene of the crime, frantically running away, but he’s arrested in short order, given a life sentence where he’s eligible for parole in thirty years. As this is happening, his parent’s marriage crumbles and falls apart, with the stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) blaming the father for excessively pushing him, not allowing him to fail, always having to be perfect, leaving them both emotionally distraught, while Emily finds herself cut off from her distant parents, without anyone to talk to at school, eating lunch outside alone, keeping earphones in her ears, remaining aloof and isolated, a forlorn figure of extreme alienation.
In the aftermath of tragedy and loss, the film turns on a dime and unexpectedly follows Emily, which is a pleasant surprise, though due to all the hatefully vile comments about her brother on social media she deletes her account, which is the first step in taking her life back. The rest of the film is an odyssey of self-discovery, which includes a lengthy road trip, but is largely an impressionistic mosaic of music-fueled imagery that mirrors her inner growth. Initially the film was actually conceived as a musical, actually writing the songs into the script, but that changed in development, though more than 40 musical tracks are profoundly influential and carry the emotional weight, in effect becoming the sound design of the film. When an awkward initial meeting takes place between Emily and a white student Luke (Lucas Hedges), he asks her out to lunch, eventually spending more time with her, actually drawing her out of her shell, viewed as a kind of rebirth, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, as portrayed by SZA, Pretty Little Birds - YouTube (4:05) or Frank Ocean, Frank Ocean - Seigfried - YouTube (5:34), allowing a creeping romanticism to develop. Both come from broken families, as her brother’s in prison and her mother died at an early age, while his alcoholic father has been absent from his life, still holding plenty of resentment against him. Emily’s personal insight and maturity level is off the charts, so when he gets word his father is dying in a hospital in Missouri, she proposes a road trip to visit him, which alters the look of the film, suddenly juxtaposing images of an open road and big skies, where they’re literally finding their freedom. Along the way she turns up the volume on one of her favorite songs on the radio, Animal Collective - Bluish (Official Video) - YouTube (5:14), which finds them sharing stories, taking side excursions to creeks and swimming holes, falling madly in love, where they are finding intimate moments that matter, suddenly revitalized, not so alone anymore. The heartfelt moments in the hospital are devastatingly real and emotionally exhausting, making up for lost time in a matter of moments, until there are no more, which can be devastating. This film is about internalizing those losses, finding faith and forgiveness in your heart, while gathering new strengths, new perspectives, and developing a renewed capacity for an all-embracing love. Melancholic sorrows bring the film to a spiritual close in the form of Thom Yorke from Radiohead, True Love Waits - Radiohead on Vimeo (4:56), singing an incredibly sad song that’s hauntingly beautiful and emotionally raw, having gone through its own transformations (sung with guitars or synthesizers through the years before finally pared down to just a piano), yet aptly reflective of the overall empathic journey of the film.