Tag Archives: Taylor Russell

Tell and Tell

Words on Bathroom Walls

by George Wolf

Look, I know Young Adult is not the only genre to lean on a familiar blueprint, but we’ve reached the point where finding any YA film without voiceover narration or an essay-reading finale is going to feel like gazing upon the golden wonders of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase.

There’s little glow surrounding Words on Bathroom Walls.

To be fair, writer Nick Naveda’s take on Julia Walton’s novel does at least try to develop an organic thread for the narration, as high schooler Adam (Charlie Plummer) talks to an unseen therapist about his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia.

Director Thor Freudenthal (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) manifests those struggles onscreen via three distinct characters (AnnaSophia Robb, Devon Bostick and the gloriously named Lobo Sebastian) whose voices are always lurking inside Adam’s head. It’s an early clue that the film’s handling of teen mental health will be an opportunity largely missed.

After a serious episode during class injures another student, Adam is expelled from his high school in the middle of senior year. On the upside, he’s accepted into a trial for a new schizophrenia drug, and into a prestigious local Catholic school which promises to be discreet.

Adam’s future plan to attend culinary college hinges on a high school diploma, which means Adam must make sure he a) takes his new meds, b) keeps his grades up, and c) passes a big exam which consists only of math questions and…..wait for it….an essay.

The obligatory tortured romance is between Adam and his math tutor, a classmate named Maya (Taylor Russell) who also has some secrets she’d rather not reveal.

And as with so many of these YA adaptations, all the narration and essay reading means the film is more tell, less show and nothing earned. Again, we get an invitation for teens to wallow in the angst of an inexperienced worldview simply by telling them what we think they want to hear.

Adam’s “you don’t understand me” posturing with his mother (Molly Parker), her new boyfriend (Walton Goggins, wasted) and an easygoing priest (Andy Garcia) serve only the manipulative and convenient use of Adam’s condition. Both Plummer (All the Money in the World) and Russell (Waves) have impressed before, but they’re given little chance to develop their characters into anything real or resonant.

All the familiar YA parts are here, and Words on Bathroom Walls keeps them comfortably close. But like those sentence-building magnets on the refrigerator door, just moving them around seldom leads to anything that makes much sense.

Time and Tide

Waves

by Hope Madden

“Seize the day,” Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) literature teacher reminds each student as they leave her classroom.

In a constant loop during weight training, Tyler’s wrestling coach barks,
“There are no second chances and there is no fucking second place!”

Even at home, Tyler’s relaxing moment alone with his loving stepmother Catharine (Renee Elise Golsberry) is interrupted by a very stern father (Sterling K. Brown, remarkable as always) reminding him that if he expects to achieve all that has been set out for him – wrestling at state championship level, securing a scholarship – he’d better get back to work.

Trey Edward Schults’s Waves is quick to show us that Tyler has it all: a loving and financially comfortable family, grades, talent, friends, and a gorgeous girlfriend (Alexa Demie). If there is time to enjoy it, there’s certainly no time to live it, to give into it, or to give anything without the clear expectation that it is forwarding something for himself. High expectations, high demands, high rewards, everything focused on Tyler, everyone focused on Tyler, Tyler focused on Tyler.

Waves sometimes feels like a less contrived, more Floridian view of Julius Onah’s Luce, the scab-picking indie in which Harrison proved himself a blistering and commanding lead. Are the demands put upon the brightest and most talented African American high school males too high? Are those supporting these young men deriving too much from their success to actually offer clear-eyed guidance?

Says Dad to an increasingly desperate Tyler, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

While much of the drama leading to this moment could be generalized to most any adolescent male buckling under high expectations, this moment between father and son separates the narrative as one dealing specifically with the black American experience.

In 1968, George Romero famously cast Duane Jones as the lead in his groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead only, according to the filmmaker, because Jones was the best actor to audition for the part. The film’s enduring success has less to do with Jones’s talent (though that is evident in every frame) and more to do with the political power the film derives from seeing a black hero in this particular effort.

Schultz cast Harrison Jr. as the male lead in Waves because of his work with the remarkable talent in his previous effort, It Comes at Night. The white filmmaker’s script itself is semi-autobiographical, and there’s a superficial tidiness to Schultz’s cultural shift that Romero’s film didn’t suffer.

It’s not enough to topple the film by any means, but the shorthand and stylized moments that remark on the cultural shift from the story of a white adolescent male on a collision course with destiny and the story of a black young man on that same course feel specifically introduced and placed, while much of the rest of the film offers an uneasy authenticity that keeps your attention.

From Schults’s dizzying opening sequence, Tyler’s breathless youth in sunny south Florida is simultaneously exhilarating and reckless, a reality underscored throughout the film by Drew Daniels’s whirligig camera and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s furious score.

What separates Waves from other chronicles of the frenzied fall of an idealized adolescent is his follow-up act, one in which the fallout of Tyler’s destruction implicates everyone who loves him, including his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell).

The point of her narrative is the redemptive nature of forgiveness. Here Schults uses the same camera movement and score to note again the hand-in-hand nature of freedom and danger in adolescence. But here, we sense things may not end up as dire.

Like Schults’s first film Krisha, Waves is embroiled in family issues as well as addiction, though this time the issues and the sociological context concern American blackness—questionable territory for a white filmmaker, even one as irrefutably talented as Schults. Perhaps thanks mainly to remarkable performances by Brown, Russell and especially Harrison, Waves rings mainly true.

Familiar Pattern

Escape Room

by Hope Madden

Man, I really liked Escape Room back in 1997 when it was called Cube.

Director Adam Robitel, who managed to do something fresh and upsetting with his 2014 feature directorial debut The Taking of Deborah Logan, here contents himself with borrowing … lifting…no, this is downright larceny.

In Vincenzo Natali’s underfunded but groundbreaking Canadian horror, Cube, six strangers—each with unique skills and backgrounds—find themselves trapped in a building and must unravel each room’s puzzle only to escape to the next room/deathtrap.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the trailer for Escape Room, but Robitel and screenwriters Maria Melnik and Bragi F. Schut have certainly seen Cube.

Cripplingly shy brainiac Zoey (Taylor Russell) is one of a handful of random strangers to receive a puzzle box in the shape of a cube. Let’s just assume that’s a nod toward the film’s source material and not a different, terrible rip off of Hellraiser.

By solving the puzzle, Zoey—and, sprinkled all over town, others—win the opportunity to attempt the most elaborate escape room ever constructed.

Actually, the architecture is weirdly familiar.

If you can get past the plagiarism and lazy theft–please add Final Destination and Saw to the list of the aggrieved—you will note that Russell and the entire cast performs quite well. Deborah Ann Woll (True Blood) impresses as a bit of a badass, while Nik Dodani endears in a small role and Tyler (Tucker and Dale vs Evil) Labine is adorable, as is almost always the case.

Many of the set pieces are pretty cool, too. One upside-down billiards room bit, in particular, holds your attention. But the game cast and sometimes fun sequences can only overcome the film’s weaknesses for so long.

Even if all these antics are new to you, the film’s predictable climax and disappointing waning moments are bound to leave you feeling that this movie could have been better.

It was once.