Film Review – Waves
Writer and director Trey Edward Shults returns with another family-oriented drama after Krisha and It Comes At Night. Waves continues to be held in high regard by critics since arriving on the film festival circuit in early 2019. The trailer for the film gives me goosebumps and is one of those trailers that does not give much away. If anything, the trailer only solidifies that it revolves around a family; the storyline remains vague.
The setting of South Florida felt essential to the film. The opening scene is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) driving across a bridge with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). The camera does a full 360 degrees view of the car and its surroundings, revolving around the happiness and carefree attitude of being a high schooler and in love. The whole story evolves from there as we are introduced to his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), his mother, Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). Piece by piece, we see how Tyler’s environment, family, and the pressures from being on the wrestling team create the end product of Tyler’s story. Being in love and being considered a successful athlete implode on each other. An injury to Tyler’s shoulder that took place before the film’s timeline threatens everything he thought he could be and his father thought he should be.
Just when you think you have seen the whole film, it starts again from the perspective of Emily, post-Tyler’s story. To discuss what happens to Emily enters into spoiler territory as it bends and shifts due to what happens with Tyler. Her fellow students perceive her as shy. It is not completely clear if she secludes herself on her own accord, or she does so because of how she is treated. It doesn’t take long for an awkward wrestler to ask her out. Luke (Lucas Hedges) makes a brief appearance in Tyler’s part of the film, just long enough to recognize who he is. His re-entry into the film is both cute and endearing. Emily embarks on her own journey with love, but it is seen in more detail than Tyler’s. Emily is growing up as she is falling in love and she is not feeling the pressure that Tyler did. Emily’s story is more about maturing, dealing with adversity and loss, forgiveness, and selflessness.
I wanted to see Sterling K. Brown’s dramatic skills shine in Waves. Unfortunately, his role is more of a supporting character. Ronald represents a strong father who has certain expectations for his son. He wants to be there for his son and be a role model, but it becomes apparent that being a strong father also put up walls for his son that Tyler didn’t want to breach. He did not feel comfortable talking to Ronald about his pain or his shortcomings. As one would predict, Brown portrays Ronald as stoic, but the stress on the family reveals cracks. Brown can show Ronald’s weakness as life becomes more difficult, saying things he wished he had said before.
Waves is an experience as well as an experiment on Shults’ part. I can’t recall a film that has quite the same structure, and it is not something that the audience will expect. One story is a downward spiral, and the next is upward. It’s a compelling dichotomy, which is shot beautifully, even if it is not conventional. Pair the story with a modern soundtrack and a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and you have something that appeals to the teenagers and the Gen X adults.