A whirling, spinning roller coaster of emotion and drama, Waves, the third feature film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night), is so fraught with heartbreak it may be heard to see the hope at the center of it all. Certainly, the family at the heart of this contemporary story of bad decisions and unattainable expectations doesn’t necessarily get a “happily ever after” by any definition, but the film nevertheless proves a worthy testament to the human capacity to survive, to navigate even the most unpredictable, dangerous waves crashing around us and emerge on the other side.
At two and a quarter hours, Shults doesn’t rush us through getting to know Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) or his parents, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry); this is an affluent black family in southern Florida, one driven by patriarch Ronald’s unflinching discipline softened only by wife Catharine’s warmth. Ronald pushes Tyler in every aspect, but particularly in his physical pursuits on the wrestling mat; the pressure is evident in Tyler’s every interaction—sure, there’s playfulness and even a romance with classmate Alexis (Alexa Demie), but never far from Tyler’s mind is the very, very high bar he is expected to reach in order to make his father proud. Quietly holding her own in her older brother’s shadow, Emily avoids much of their father’s worst tendencies if only by dint of her being the baby of the family.
In fact, we don’t see much of Emily for the first half the of the film, nor do we catch more than a glimpse of Lucas Hedges, playing Luke, a student (and fellow wrestler) who attends the same school as Tyler and Emily. Nearly an hour into the film, I found myself wondering why such a well-known actor would be cast in such an inconsequential role—if only for budgetary reasons, quite an overspend for a bit part. But of course, Luke becomes a much bigger part of the Williams’ story, as a pivotal scene at the halfway mark changes not only the trajectory of their lives but of the film itself. It’s a scene you may see coming, but is nevertheless shocking (I literally gasped aloud), thanks in large part to cinematographer Drew Daniels’s cameras constantly on the move. The shots wheel this way and that, lending themselves to the chaos of this sequence, a pressure-cooker scenario more than ready to burst.
It’s at this point that Shults makes a bold, unexpected decision, as the narrative naturally hits a fork in the road and, in a bit of a Frostian move, he opts for the storyline less traveled. That is to say, when Tyler’s fate appears sealed and one might expect the story to either continue on into this new phase of his life or find its way to a graceful end, the filmmaker opts to zoom out from his experience and instead shifts our gaze to the Williamses left behind. In this masterstroke, Shults turns a timely, interesting commentary on the pressures of modern upper-middle class life into an essential examination of grief, loss, and—at least at a familial level—the big, structural sort of life changes that leave us in pieces. The second half of the film, too, is where the hope lies, buried as it may be underneath the Williams family’s broken hearts.
While Ronald and Catharine struggle with all that’s come to pass, it’s Emily who emerges as a sort of beacon for life after tragedy; in the midst of it all, she’s forged a new relationship with Luke, their youthful love—full of promise and intensity—a salve she didn’t know she needed. There’s a particlarly memorable scene between Emily and her father (Brown, like the rest of the cast, is spectacular throughout) that is devastating, yes; but it’s also so deeply honest it’s a bit of a wonder we’re allowed to observe it at all. In this way, Shults reminds us that no one’s life story is without its anguish and likewise, without a capacity for renewal.
In addition to the inventive camera work, the filmmaker deploys a number of devices that confirm his ever-growing confidence at the helm, a film that plays with transitions and aspect ratios and relishes in its exceptional score. Like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight from 2016, Waves is an accomplishment that belies the filmmaker’s relative inexperience; with just a few films to his name to date, this latest arrives as a declaration of vision, both cinematically and narratively. Here’s hoping Shults has much more to say.
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