Figures float through the atmosphere, their feet arbitrarily tethered to the ground as their bodies move through the dust-filled air, or the thicker, more hostile waves of the sea. Their souls, however, float freely, tethered only to their own desires, abandoning reason, consciousness and the laws of physics to explore possibilities beyond those of a city content to untether them altogether. Mati Diop’s Atlantics is my first masterpiece of the 2019 London Film Festival, a vivid and startling confluence of sensible social realism and senseless magic realism, a vision of genuine innovation enriched by Diop’s marvellous union of concept and form. It concerns Ada, a young woman less than a fortnight from her wedding, whose secret lover ditches their Dakar surroundings to brave the Atlantic in search of a better life in Portugal; his disappearance along with many other young men from their coastal neighbourhood engenders bizarre changes in the lives of those left behind, and the atmosphere begins to fill with new, strange figures.
Diop herself fills the movie’s atmosphere until it burgeons with abundant, potent style of a most lulling, beguiling quality. Intensity and intimacy are tempered with a certain flippant ephemerality, enhanced by Atlantics’ playfully spiritual leanings. Though Diop imposes no aggressive stylistic devices on her movie, it possesses remarkable stylistic force, with a combination of evocative imagery and score inducing a somewhat reverie-like experience in the viewer. Described in any detail, it begins to resemble so many existing movies, yet the timbre of Atlantics feels distinctly new and unusual – perhaps it is the simple, sad fact that we’ve never seen African cinema carry itself with precisely this kind of deportment before (though we’ve seen similar), and that Diop’s inventive proposal rides the wave of its own invention with such conviction that its effect is felt through its every individual constituent part. What a beautiful, memorable movie, one sure to reap boundless rewards upon repeat viewings. Mati Diop, to whom the future belongs!
A shakier, less certain future seems to belong to America’s youth. Indeed, that obscenely wealthy country, that beacon of the kind of gauche excess that’s boring a hole through the Global South in Atlantics, may have relatively less to promise its young than a country like Senegal. As a nation, it’s too unwieldy, too divided, thronging with different people, different histories, different motives, different paths to wildly different goals. Only in America, perhaps, could one legitimately imagine a lifestyle like that depicted in Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, one of a kind of bacchanalian teen existence that I still believe only truly exists in the movies, but insofar as it does exist here, legitimate imagination may then be granted legitimate consideration. Give into Waves, either in spite of or due to its curious inconsistencies, its unfettered audacity, its quintessentially American enthusiasm for nought but itself, and consider how brilliantly alive American cinema can be.
It’s a pointlessly ambitious movie, bearing the structure neither of convention nor of invention, trading in topics both familiar and unfamiliar, from perspectives both rote and inspired, in a manner both convincing and unconvincing. Yet if that ambition yields intermittent misfires for the audience, it yields many times more triumphs for the filmmaker, and the graphic, corny brio with which Shults channels every last creative impulse into his technique here acts like a direct transfusion of his fervour into our hearts. He puts all the tools at his disposal (and a few others) toward the integrity of the experience of consuming this heartiest of artistic meals, one that may necessitate the occasional tactical regurgitation, but one that undoubtedly leaves you feeling sated. Once it seems Waves has lost the pretentiousness that has contributed to both its biggest successes and its sorriest failures, it’s sucked you in so deep that you’ll gladly permit it one last, grand pretension. And it’s here that the movie states its purpose most powerfully, explicitly becoming a sprawling sermon to the value of compassion and to the virtue of learning all that we can about one another directly from one another. Resist the temptation to roll your eyes, and keep them fixed on the screen and on Shults’ magnificent directorial flair – you’ll be in for one of 2019’s most rewarding cinematic experiences.