In most movies, there is a discernible, formulaic narrative structure that audiences are able to recognize, allowing them to find comfort in the familiarity of the story. To avoid losing audiences, filmmakers can tend to err on the safe side because of general instability in viewers’ willingness to seek out something that strays from the norm.
This is not the case in “Waves,” a film that challenges the symbiotic relationship between the viewer and filmmaker, asking much more from the audience than most filmmakers would dare. Consisting of extreme ups and downs, “Waves” never treads a straightforward, expected path. The film instead forces the audience to constantly be on edge while they are immersed in the energetic and intimate world that writer and director Trey Edward Shults creates.
Like his previous two films, “Krisha” and “It Comes at Night,” “Waves” explores the complexities and dysfunctions of family dynamics. The operatic, ambitious style Shults achieves shows his immense growth as a filmmaker over the past several years, as he demonstrates a mastery of tense, emotional moments. “Waves” is a movie overflowing with ideas and emotions, which can be detrimental at times since it is difficult to capture the gravity of such themes on screen. But the film mostly lends itself to an overwhelmingly visceral, unique and scintillating viewing experience.
Set in modern-day Florida, “Waves” delves into some of the darkest aspects of life
to portray a Black family’s experience in the suburbs. The film begins with dizzying momentum as the camera constantly whirls around Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) going through his daily, exhaustive tasks as a teenage student-athlete. His intimidating yet loving dad, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), constantly reminds him of the reality of being a Black man in the modern-day United States. Tyler feels overwhelmed by the expectations put on him and struggles to balance his passions and his father’s pressure on him to be successful as he nears high school graduation. His girlfriend (Alexa Demie) delivers the surprising news that she is pregnant, upending their relationship and causing Tyler to stressfully contemplate his preparedness for his future. After severely injuring his shoulder, Tyler continues to compete on his school’s wrestling team because of pressure from his father, suppressing his physical and emotional pain.
Halfway through the film, the focus shifts to Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) when a catastrophic accident occurs. This mid-film shift is sudden and bold. Life moves fast in the energetic and chaotic first half, but that comes to an abrupt halt. Time slows down and characters reflect as they are forced to lead radically different lives. Life changes for these characters and the film evolves right along with them.
The film’s division into these two distinct halves is by far its most audacious choice because of its reliance on the audience’s empathy and utter trust in Shults. The ability of “Waves” to take big risks with such success is in large part due to the knockout performances from its two leads, Harrison Jr. and Russell, who help anchor their two respective halves to create a cohesive whole. With another head-turning performance in “Luce” earlier this year, Harrison Jr. proves to be one of the most exciting young actors in the industry today. He manages to expertly toe the line between the darkness and humanity in his character, bringing compelling nuance to the silver screen in “Waves.”
Russell, another relative newcomer, not only aptly serves as the center of the film’s second half but becomes the soul of the film. Through quiet and tender moments, she displays raw honesty and vulnerability beautifully. There is a standout scene between Emily and Ronald in the second half of the film that contains a great deal of catharsis due to Russell’s ability to convey so much emotion with a subtle glance or a brief hesitation preceding her words.
“Waves” is incredibly dense in its storytelling style and undoubtedly demands a lot from the viewer. Shults pulls at each and every one of the audience’s heartstrings, which could be seen as emotionally manipulative, but the events that take place in this film are sadly far from fantasy. One day or one action can change the course of someone’s life forever. While there is pain and loss that results from a single mistake, Shults also highlights the love and forgiveness that can follow.