Writer/Director/Co-Editor Trey Edward Shults has spent his career thus far exploring the inner workings of broken families, from his breakout debut feature, “Krisha”, to his ambiguous and bleak 2017 masterpiece, “It Comes at Night”, and now with his new film, “Waves”. Each film offers a vast shift in tone and genre, but still retains the same core themes.
“Waves” chronicles the journey of a black suburban family living in Florida, leading up to and following a massive crisis, with an eccentric yet messy eye. Kelvin Harrison Jr. powerfully plays “Tyler”, a high school senior fixated on his girlfriend Alexis (“Euphoria”‘s Alexa Demie) and his wrestling career, and guided by his overpowering but well-meaning father (Sterling K. Brown). Taylor Russell is “Emily”, Tyler’s younger sister; a sensitive, quiet type that lacks the confidence exhibited by her brother and father. Renee Elise Goldsberry is the stepmother to Tyler and Emily who raised both kids since they were little, but even she fails in her attempts to communicate with them.
Told in distinctive chapters utilizing shifting aspect ratios, Shults aims to create a cinematic experience for the audience, rather than a traditional narrative. Much of the first half is dedicated to Harrison Jr’s character and his struggles with his surroundings. Like any athletic high schooler, Tyler is obsessed with getting his body into peak shape, further pressured by his father. Although he aims to lead with the best of intentions, his father essentially suffocates him and pushes him past his limits. After a rather intense workout session, he says to his son “I don’t push you because I want to, but because I need to”. Sterling K. Brown gives the film’s best performance as the domineering father. Raging with tough masculinity, Brown is able to create a complex, layered character through rich nuances and a stark vulnerability hidden beneath the surface. It’s a wonderful performance, and one that hopefully doesn’t go unnoticed by the greater awards season.
Its during this half where Shults’ unique presentation goes all out. The rich cinematography by Drew Daniels borrows heavily from the likes of Terrence Malick and Harmony Korine — who actually makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo– but maintains an original personality that often dazzles, even when it leans into overkill. The hyperactive visual style, boasted by impeccable camerawork and a booming sound mix, brings a palpable sense of urgency to the film that enhances the more heavy dramatic moments. It’s chaotic and dizzying, but completely immersive and truly works for this story.
The manic first half then gives way to a slower, more contemplative second half focusing on Taylor Russell’s daughter character. Russell, giving a breakout performance here, is the film’s heart and soul, bringing a tenderness to counterbalance the fierce first half. Lucas Hedges is perfectly cast as Russell’s awkward, yet charming boyfriend. The innocent chemistry between the two actors is sweet and endearing, making the more melodramatic detours in their section of the film more easily digestible. It’s actually the film’s third act where “Waves” crashes. A needless subplot that takes up a majority of the climax piles on to the film’s main theme of forgiveness. What worked so well before and came off as poignant, ends with a disappointing thud.
Shults effectively makes this story feel modern, even if it is fairly timeless. The front-and-center soundtrack with artists including Kanye, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Radiohead and Animal Collective fits alongside the visual stylings in further forging its remarkable identity. The dialogue between the teenagers feels natural. Its depiction of current youth is authentic, sometimes strikingly so. Even as the script thematically overreaches, the honesty in its characters almost makes up for it.
The character work is thankfully dense as so many ideas are thrown at the wall, that any focus the film has suffers greatly. The script isn’t as tight as it should be, leaving many themes astray. The family dynamic works so well, but whenever Shults attempts to create any social commentary, the lack of dimension keeps it from reaching its potential.
Trey Edward Shults is certainly reaching as high as he can in his attempts at bold storytelling. Although much of “Waves” doesn’t work, its ambitions are highly admirable. Every performance is top-notch, the distinctive visual style is wholly unique and there is some great insight in its portrait of a broken family.