WAVES – Review
One might call WAVES a family drama but that fails to capture the emotional tsunami that this outstanding film truly is.
The story is set in South Florida but the title has little to do with the shoreline. Instead, the waves are more the emotional kind, ebbing and flowing through the tides of life, sometimes gentle and soothing, sometimes rough and buffeting, and at times threatening to overwhelm and knock us off our feet.
Writer/director Trey Edward Shults uses a dynamic, kinetic camera and a pounding score to place us right in the emotional heart of this story of an upper middle-class African American family in South Florida. From the outside, the family looks perfect with everything going for them – two happily married successful parents, two teenage children, the oldest of which, the son, with a particularly bright future. They have every reason for hope and optimism.
An opening scene sets the film’s powerful, immersive tone. With a rotating camera inside a car, we travel along a causeway over the ocean as the teenage son in the family, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his friends laugh and clown around. The effect is both expansive and claustrophobic, creates an immediacy and high tension, and hooks us immediately.
The drama focuses primarily on the two teenagers, Tyler and his quieter younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) more than the parents, dad Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and step mother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry). It centers on each teen individually by turns, rather in the relationship with each other, an interesting approach to its exploration of family dynamics and this family’s journey. The film is essentially divided into two parts, centered first on the son, then the daughter, with a shattering event as the pivot point between the two threads.
The first half is built around Tyler and his relationship with his domineering father Ronald (Sterling K Brown). A promising scholar-athlete with a bright future, Tyler is the family star and Dad drills him relentlessly like a coach, pushing him to succeed as a wrestler and setting high standards for him in all aspects of life. In one scene, Dad has one over several intense talks with his son. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” he cautions him. “I push you because I have to.” Good intentions are there but the pressure is enormous.
The family appears happy as well as prosperous, with everything going for them, but there are hidden internal strains, mostly from the pressure and expectations Ronald places on his talented son. Tyler has a lot going for him – a star on the wrestling team, scholarship prospects, lots of friends and a beautiful girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). Tyler obediently complies with Dad’s strict drills, striving to please his father but the weight he feels is clearly heavy. Out of Dad’s sight, he is testing boundaries, and the contrast creates an edgy tension to the film. Director Shults further pumps up this tension with restless hand-held photography and a camera that follows the son around very closely, as he goes about his life as a popular high school student.
The tension in this drama, and its sense of foreboding, is worthy of a thriller. That effect is greatly amplified by a searing, pounding score, brilliantly crafted by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. We know something is going to happen to upset this family’s idyll and shatter dreams, but we are unsure exactly what that will be. As Tyler engages in the kinds of pushing-the-boundaries behaviors of often associated with male adolescence – too many friends and distractions while he is driving, sneaking over to his girlfriend’s house, going to a party where the parents are out of town, drinking and other misbehavior – there is a feeling of an accelerating pace. As that pace increases. we wonder which of these might lead to the tragedy we know is coming. When it does come, Sterling K. Brown’s reactions as the father are riveting, a complicated mix of disbelief, heartache and guilt, played out across his face.
After tragedy strikes, the drama shifts its focus to the daughter Emily, but the whole tone of the film shifts as well. It changes from the frenetic pace and high tension of Tyler’s life and personality, to the quiet stillness of Emily’s, as she copes with jumbled emotions in the aftermath of what has happened. While all the cast is good, Taylor Russell is a revelation, creating a compelling and intimate inner life for her character, and a far deeper and more layered portrait than we expect, allowing Russell to dominate the screen in her own fashion. In this second part, Lucas Hedges provides strong support to her work, in a fine performance as Emily’s new boyfriend Luke.
It is an impressive film, with director Shults masterfully blending a dynamic visual style, insistent score and excellent performances with strong storytelling, each aspect reaching high levels but coalescing into a seamless whole. There is a striking immediacy in this drama, a relentless pull to its personal stories, and an overwhelming sense of immersion in their lives, that far exceeds most family dramas. The film is more about the personal and inner life than events themselves, about the human emotions around it. The camera keeps us close to the characters so that we feel a part of their inner lives without the need for them to speak. Although a tragedy is the center of the plot, WAVES is a film about hope, feelings, human connections, and life being lived, even in the wake of the unthinkable.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars