by Prerna Pamar
A trend I noticed in many of the films presented at the Austin Film Festival was a realistic portrayal of the human condition through uniquely visceral experiences in which there is a desire to make the audience feel the intensity of what’s on screen. Many of the films I watched seemed to be made to make the audience feel uncomfortable due to various storylines that explored the depths of addiction, love, and grief.
The film Waves stood out to be exceptionally excruciating and beautiful. The film explores the concept of family, and what that means in the context of modern-day America. The first half of the movie follows the story of Tyler Williams, a successful African-American high school senior played by Kelvin Harrison Jr, who is hopeful for a future in wrestling despite his injured shoulder. The film follows his destructive, emotional downfall due to drugs and alcohol abuse despite the guidance of his caring, yet overprotective father, played by Sterling K. Brown. Tyler’s downward spiral leads to a gruesome accident that changed the course of his life forever.
Through Tyler’s story, Waves explores the dynamics of a black family living in America. One of the most heartbreaking scenes was when the father explains to Tyler that he must never take anything he has for granted because “we aren’t given the luxury of being average.” Within our current political climate, this is an important message to portray on the big screen because there are many minorities that can relate to this sentiment, since there is constant societal pressure to prove themselves. This pressure is manifested in the film through the extreme lengths Tyler would take to prove his worth to his father as well as society. It was heartbreaking yet realistic to see that despite the efforts Tyler and his family made to progress, one fatal mistake eliminated all of their hard work, emphasizing the fragility of their accumulated success.
The film used the unique strategy of narrativizing the bifurcating line in order to split the film into two stories: the story leading up to this incident and the story of the aftermath. The scene with the choke close shot of Tyler in the police car is paired with a choke close shot of his sister, Emily, in the car on the way to her brother’s court hearing, illustrating the transition of the story to the sister and the consequences of Tyler’s mistake on the emotional state of the family. The transition is also illustrated by the shift in the aspect ratio of the film since it closes in once he commits central accidental murder, and then widens back up when the story shifts to Emily. The director, Trey Edward Shults, later explained that this transition was implemented in order to portray that even though life has dark obstacles, life still moves on afterwards which is exemplified in the portrayal of Emily’s story.
The main sentiment explored in the second half of the film is forgiveness. After being sentenced to life in prison for accidentally murdering his girlfriend, Tyler leaves his sister in a vulnerable emotional state of hatred and confusion towards her brother and his actions. The parents are left in a similar state except their hatred is directed inwards and they struggle to forgive themselves for allowing this horrific event to take place. While these emotions were painful to watch from an audience’s perspective, the portrayal of the raw reality of grief and the act of forgiveness in Waves allows us to delve into the circumstances surrounding these emotions.
Similar to Waves, Shia LeBoeuf’s autobiographical Honey Boy presents a gut-wrenching rendition of childhood trauma and its aftermath. The opening scene is a compilation of fast-paced scenes of what seems to be various shots from action movies he has acted in. The rapid editing of the scenes compiled together gives the audience an accurate feeling of what it is like to be an actor and the speed in which life moves when there is little distinction between reality and the fabricated cinematic world. The rapid opening scene compilation also allows the audience to resonate with the detachment LeBoeuf, played by Lucas Hedges, feels from the fast-paced environment of Hollywood, since he seems to be simply going through the motions. Hedges also does an incredible performance of the raw fury and frustration that comes with a serious diagnosis such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder during his time in court-ordered rehab.
The film also successfully intertwines flashbacks from his childhood with his experience in rehab that allows us to understand how specific moments in his youth affected his development as an adult. One scene that was especially striking was the confrontation between the father, James, played by LeBoeuf, and Otis, played by Noah Dupe, on the shame James feels in being paid by his son through his acting career. The camera lingers on each character for long periods of time during the conversation instead of cutting away to each person every time they speak, allowing the true emotional responses to the conversation to be communicated through their facial expressions instead of solely the dialogue. Honey Boy explores the subtleties of emotional abuse and how it manifests in the mental health of its victims.
The Obituary of Tunde Johnson also highlights important themes of addiction and grief similar to the ones presented in the other two films but in the context of the current political climate in America. A reflection on police brutality, The Obituary of Tunde Johnson is presented in a time loop in which the main character Tunde, a young, wealthy black man, is repeatedly shot or killed by police in some horrifically brutal form. Each time is equally painful to watch but the last scene where Tunde is choked to death by police officer is exceptional since the camera does not leave the close up of Tunde, forcing the audience to pay attention and understand that this is an incident that is not restricted to the screen but is a reality for the black community, a message that would not be portrayed as strongly if the scene was cut short.
The films presented at the Austin Film Festival were a vivid representation of what it is to be human. Due to heavy yet important subjects such as mental health and police brutality, many of the films this year seemed to be looking at us, in the sense that we should watch these films and reflect on ourselves and our connection to these films instead of the films themselves.