The third feature film from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, following 2015 drama Krisha and 2017 horror-drama It Comes at Night, finds the filmmaker ramping up his ambition – both thematically and stylistically.
Waves tells the story of a suburban, Black-American family of four: father, mother, son, daughter. They are undoubtedly well off, although they have not reached this comfort without a lot of hard work – as well-meaning but intimidating and domineering father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) likes to remind teenage son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). As an athlete with a potentially very bright future ahead, there’s a lot of pressure on Tyler, our focus for the film’s primary build up.
It’s a film that benefits from the less said about inciting incidents or emotional crescendos. It’s a film that touches on a few truths about life; how they’re brought in and realised may be best experienced organically. As a reviewer, it isn’t often that I attend a film without knowing too much about it, and trailers have an increasingly bad habit of dropping too many reveals, and so it was refreshing to get hit with this family’s tense journey of ups and mostly downs without knowing the overall trajectory.
This is a family drama, and yes, you could most certainly classify it as a teen drama, but it’s far from run-of-the-mill. From the opening shot, it’s clear that Shults wants to engage the senses. And that, he does. From incredibly emotive camera work to it’s thumping soundscape, Waves can be overwhelming with its stylish leanings, but Shults keeps them in line with story – amplification is the name of the game. Raw emotion is given a cinematic boom box here, with cinematographer Drew Daniels (Euphoria, It Comes at Night) lensing it all beautifully. For comparison’s sake, think Terrence Malick and Derek Cianfrance, although throbbing with tension (at least its first half), and with a hip hop soundtrack and a nervy score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network, Watchmen).
Shults’ screenplay is an assortment of themes and topics, touching on the fragility of adolescence, the pitfalls of parenting, the complexities of masculinity, and the ripple effect that one’s actions can have on loved ones for years to come. Those keen to dig can find even more specific discussions, which I won’t elaborate on due to spoiler risks. It’s an ambitious screenplay and Shults deserves applause for threading a plethora of talking points throughout an uncluttered story.
For all its impressive elements, Waves‘ length and structure could hold it back for some. Moving into its latter stages, following a consistently rhythmic rise to such a devastating turn of events, proves to be a slightly jarring change of pace and tone. The film’s 2 hour and 15 minute runtime threatens to be noticed as we settle into is this new section of Shults’ canvas. A slight trim could have helped as we near the culmination. Nevertheless, there is much to be found in the second half; as the plot meanders, the focus takes it time to close in again, but the film’s message of forgiveness and love does become clear.
The film benefits from a fantastic cast. Harrison Jr. should be marking himself as one to look out for, with a strong screen presence and nailing a painful arc that he immerses us into perfectly. Brown continues to put in strong work – this man has to be leading more pictures. Taylor Russell, who many may know as Judy Robinson from Netflix’s Lost in Space, is equally powerful in a more understated role as Alexis, the daughter and sister whose life will forever be affected. As the mother through it all, Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton) is also fantastic. And last but not least, indie darling Lucas Hedges, again making it look effortless.
Waves is as in-your-face and brutal as it can be measured and heartfelt. While a tighter second half could have ensured a stronger through line, Shults (also the film’s co-editor, by the way) delivers a strong, highly emotional film that can, in one way or another, resonate with many.