I'm going to be kind of vague on this one. I went in knowing very few plot specifics (I knew it was about a family navigating tragedy and forgiveness or something) and for me not knowing what was coming paid off in spades.
On a basic plot level, I'll concede that it's not anything wildly original--a lot of the plot points you've seen in other indies--but Trey Edward Shults takes a bold, audacious approach to the material and to the characters. I know some viewers will have zero patience for that approach--what's the point taking a standard indie and playing it at the operatic level?, they might ask. I understand that, and in a different mindset, I might have come out thinking the same thing. All I know is how I reacted today.
The first half (it is divided into two very distinct halves) may lose some people right away. In the hands of a lesser director, I do think it would feel like it wallows in misery--it throws a lot at Tyler, the protagonist--but call me stupid, I never had a clear idea where it was going. Shults kept me completely unsure of what would happen, and it's one of the few mainstream films I can think of where I genuinely had a feeling that anything could happen, that it could go anywhere, that it could become any kind of movie. Like I said, it does throw several different things at the protagonist, many of which could've easily fueled the plot, but most of those things don't play out the way you would expect. When the first act finally does reach its climax, Shults manages to keep so many characters and plot threads and emotions in play that I was practically breathless. Easily one of the great movie sequences of the year.
The second half plays out in a much more measured, subdued manner than the first half. It's nearly impossible to discuss the second half in much detail at all because its plot is fueled so extensively by the first half. So what I will say is that Taylor Russell, who anchors the second half, as Emily, Tyler's sister, is phenomenal, and it's insane to me that she is not at the very center of the Supporting Actress conversation. (Although she might make my ballot in Lead, I know she's being campaigned in Support, and I understand the placement.) The whole ensemble is excellent really, but especially that core family, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Russell, Sterling K. Brown, and Renee Elise Goldsberry who are all so believable as a family with a shared--and complicated--history.
This is also one of the few times that utilizing multiple aspect ratios--and Shults uses at least five--didn't bother me. It usually bothers me because the way films are projected now, 2.35:1 films are usually projected with black bars on a 16:9 screen. So if you go from 16:9 to 2.35:1, you aren't "opening up" the film at all. (Movies like The Horse Whisperer could do this and have it work because the film was actually projected on a 2.35:1 screen, so the image really did get much bigger.) Shults starts the film in 1.85:1, but through the first half he goes to 2.35:1 (by putting black bars on the screen) and then, finally, to what appeared to be a Ben-Hur-level widescreen as Tyler's world seemed to be closing in on him him. He also plays around with aspect ratios in the second half--much of it is in 1.37:1--although I'm honestly not sure if the switching aspect ratios works as well in the second half as it does in the first. (Mainly because I don't know that it's thematically necessary in the second half, where it absolutely is in the first half.)
Interested to hear what others think. I don't expect this to be unanimously loved, but I thought it was pretty excellent--a work of real ambition and real talent--and easily one of the top films of the year for me.