Waves is a great reminder of how humane movies can be. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults follows up Krisha and It Comes at Night with a powerful story about a family struggling to cope with an unfathomable fluke tragedy. He brings a level of artfulness to the story -- including multiple changes of aspect ratios -- for effect, while staying completely honed in on the emotional journey of the characters. Few films are able to get to the heart of what it means to face life's ups and downs the way this one does.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Luce) plays Tyler Williams. He's a good teen who occasionally resents his hard-driving father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), despite generally benefiting from the lessons doled out. After a devastating injury halts his high school wrestling career, Tyler becomes a combination of angry and depressed. Then a situation with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) arises. Suddenly, his rage comes fully out, along with a controlling side.
Meanwhile, Tyler's sister Emily (Taylor Russell) begins dating a classmate, Luke (Lucas Hedges), and Ronald and wife Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) find their marriage on the verge of falling apart.
I'm leaving out the incident that drives the plot because it's better if you discover it for yourself. What happens is shocking, although not in an exploitative manner. Waves is about how the Williams family attempts to cope when something unforeseen disrupts the life they've known. We watch as some of them grow close, others become distant. They ask themselves questions, such as “Did I help cause this to happen?” and “Did I miss something that could have prevented this?” The answer to those questions is that there is no concrete answer, so they have to cope with that on top of everything else.
To convey the emotional chaos, Shults often keeps his camera moving. If people are driving, the camera is in the center of the car, circling around as it captures the occupants. During other scenes, it glides through rooms, across the floor, or around the people. The multiple aspect ratios – which range from widescreen to square – help emphasize where the characters are psychologically. Editing is used on that count, too.
The acting is front and center, though. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. gives the best performance I've seen this year by anyone, in any genre. He lays bare the damage inside of Tyler – the way his injury and his girlfriend situation convince him that his life is destined to spiral hopelessly downward, as well as the immaturity that doesn't let him recognize the belief is distorted. Harrison also makes Tyler's anger credible. We know he's not a bad kid, but he has a certain sense of entitlement that, when threatened, unleashes something ugly.
Taylor Russell plays the opposite extreme. Emily's damage causes her to withdraw, until Luke shows her it's okay to open up. The actress, in only her second professional role, is a powerhouse, bringing out the I-can't-believe-this-has-happened confusion that Emily feels. Sterling Brown is another standout, skillfully playing a father facing the idea that his parental focus has been on all the wrong things, despite the best of intentions.
Waves runs 135 minutes, which gives you time to really get to know the story's inhabitants, thereby making what happens to them more engrossing. Shults observes human emotions and behavior with great precision. Every second of the movie has a ring of truth. And in the end, the filmmaker gives us hope – a valuable commodity given where the movie takes us. Life can be hard, he seems to be saying, but people find strength and unity they didn't know they had in those darkest of moments.
See Waves and prepare to be deeply moved.
out of four
Waves is rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.