2019, R, 135 min. Directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Renée Elise Goldsberry.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Nov. 22, 2019
Trey Edward Shults' third feature has so much punishing and glorious emotion that it’s difficult to encapsulate just how extraordinary a film it is. Like the writer-director’s previous films Krisha and It Comes at Night, Waves focuses its highly stylized gaze on a family in conflict from forces both within and without. Shults has been pegged as a budding master of cinematic psychological unease, and his newest is no exception. Set on the Florida coastline, it’s brimming over with thunderheads both literal and figurative, but the unreservedly dark and soul-shattering first half – familial storm warning alert! – later on gives way to the possibility of a redemptive sunrise.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. – who Shults developed the story with and for – gives a bombshell performance as Tyler, a charismatic high school charmer who spends his days romancing girlfriend Alexis (Demie) and putting in some physically punishing work on his school’s wrestling team. His tough-as-nails father Ronald (Brown), himself once a favored athlete, pushes Tyler every day, reminding him that a young black man has to strive 10 times as hard to make it in a white man’s America: “We are not afforded the luxury of being average” is his motto. Tyler’s kid sister Emily (the radiant Russell) initially comes across as shy, even timid, but when her brother stoically suffers a debilitating, potentially career ending shoulder injury, it’s Emily he comes to and confides in. Tyler plays down his injury even after a sobering trip to the doctor and hides his physical pain and growing mental anguish from his Great Santini-esque dad by popping Oxys, booze, and weed. His downward spiral climaxes in a horrific act of violence that shatters everyone and everything around him. But where other directors might conclude the story then and there, Shults opens up his previously borderline claustrophobic film and retrains his focus on Emily and her budding relationship with Luke (Hedges), an endearingly forthright and socially awkward white kid with his own familial baggage.
As if the dazzling performances and audaciously intertwined storylines weren’t enough, Waves is a visual stunner, too, thanks to director of photography Drew Daniels, whose restless, reckless camerawork paints a family tragedy in dizzying, near-psychedelic hues, mirroring the increasingly frenetic storyline. Backed by a queasy, throbbing score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Waves is both incrementally unnerving and eventually exultant, a pitch-perfect portrait of post-millennial teenage life, with all of its ultra-adrenalized emotions, fraught expectations, and fateful, rash decisions.
For an interview with writer-director Trey Edward Shults about the personal story behind Waves, read "Bonded by Blood," Oct. 25.