In theory, I love the TIFF Rising Stars initiative. I can’t say that I’ve invested a significant portion of my coverage time to it in the past, but it’s focus on new Canadian and International talent and its efforts to mentor performers, providing them with public exposure along with professional development opportunities, deserves attention.
This year’s bountiful crop of talent captured my eye, in large part due to the inclusion of Kelvin Harrison Jr., an actor who had already garnered industry notice in 2017, when Filmmaker Magazine recognized him as one of the ’25 New Faces in Independent Film.’ From there, he snagged a nomination from the Gotham Independent Film Awards for his breakthrough performance in It Comes At Night. Continuing that trend, Harrison has been featured in Monsters and Men as well as Julius Onah’s highly-talked about dramatic character study Luce, which puts Harrison front and center, a space he commands with self-assurance, even when his characters appear to be experiencing the most vulnerable moments of their lives.
I caught Waves, the new film from Trey Edward Shults (Krishna, It Comes At Night) in part because of Harrison, but largely out of curiosity, since the critical buzz has been unavoidable. At this time of the year, certain titles have obvious cache – A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood or The Irishman, to name a couple – while others, like Marriage Story build word of mouth after festival screenings. Waves falls in that latter category.
Shults presents audiences with an All-American family, striving on the back of their rising son Tyler (Harrison), a high school wrestler and hardworking student with a beautiful girlfriend and a bright future. His father (Sterling K. Brown) is a domineering taskmaster, preparing his son to be better than the world he’s about to enter, while his mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) offers gentle support to offset some of the tough love. His younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) lingers on the margins of the family’s attention.
We know we’re bearing witness to a tragedy, the breaking of this unit, but Shults takes his time, building them up before our eyes. We need to see them, because as an African American family, they might not be what we would expect. Shults sets them up as an idealized nuclear family, with their Blackness on full display, right along with their All-American branding.
And Harrison is the linchpin. Much like in Luce, Waves zeroes in on him, getting uncomfortably close, so that we appreciate the tension, the waiting for this dream to collapse around and bury him. I won’t reveal what happens in the second half of this slow-burning narrative, once the fall occurs, but Harrison’s presence lingers and makes sure Waves does too, in the souls of viewers.
My second Rising Star of the day was Josefine Frida, the lead of writer-director Jorunn Mykelbust Syversen’s Disco, which I added to my schedule on a whim. The story of a championship level dancer (Frida) whose status in competition starts to falter, causing her religious family to question her faith, didn’t quite make sense. Somehow disco dancing and an exploration of modern Christianity seemed at odds.
And Disco does shy away from either side of this dynamic. The dancing competitions revel in the exaggerated moves and titillating displays of young girls as the lights pulse and the music takes over the heartbeats of both dancers and spectators, while the focus on faith drills in deeply too, showing how this young woman is pulled between the happy surface of devotion in her stepfather’s non-denominational church and the allure of a harsher reckoning with roots on her mother’s side.
Frida has one foot firmly on each path and shows us how her character is actually unable to move, to either choose one or break free to find her own detour. It is a quietly mesmerizing performance, all the more unsettling because it refuses to provide us with easy answers, much like faith itself.
With stars like these on the horizon, there’s no end to the lights projecting in the darkness of TIFF’s screens. It’s time we all start shifting our gaze.