Trey Edward Shults’ third feature, Waves, is about actions and reactions, how different circumstances cause emotions to ebb and flow. This story of family disintegration speaks to uncomfortable issues and is sure to generate plenty of discussion.
Going into the film as raw as possible is part of the effect it has. Split into two parts, the first half feels far more predictable, yet its emotional impacts are raw and deeply unsettling. The second half injects a welcome turn, where the events of the first are reconceptualized. The metaphor of the title shows how the ripples emerge in multiple directions – thematic, temporal, and emotional – with peaks and troughs amplifying or quieting differing aspects as the cascade continues.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. plays Tyler, an ambitious student athlete who’s driven to success by his physically and emotionally dominant father (Sterling K. Brown). He and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) are being raised in luxury. Their mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) has a successful business and they seem to have it all –fancy cars, a mansion-like home – but even into this environment troubles soon emerge.
Tyler’s storyline is the most on-point, focusing on aspects of paternal dominance, the opioid crisis, the particularly American ambition of “amateur” student athletics driven to succeed at any cost, and even the way that young love can make fools, even violent ones, out of many adolescents. Tyler’s relationship with Alexis (Alexa Demie) is a core aspect, and the result of their affection sets things in motion that can’t ever be reversed.
Throughout, the characters’ decisions are believable, their mistakes real. The themes of the film are troubling, and many will balk at the rawness of both the narrative and the performances. Further, some viewers will have a completely understandable hesitation regarding this kind of story. It’s told with such specificity that it may be decried as exploitational.
I think would be to misread not only the collaborative nature of the project but undercut the film’s real strength in the second act, where Emily’s story is given full reign. Her decisions elevate the human strife, her wisdom and kindness are borne of tragedy and not simply some simplistic gift due to her youth or a stereotypes of her gender.
This film drives home a Christian message of forgiveness an understanding, which can be challenging given that it’s often used as a way of excusing abuse. However, the notion of letting go, of being better than, is presented as a strength rather than a weakness, intelligence rather than ignorance, and is tied to the belief in a shared humanity. Even the most appalling of actions can’t erase the humanity (nor deny their culpability) of the person who committed the heinous act.
That’s a lot to pack into a few hours, and Shults manages the feat quite well. With a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, plus a smattering of A-List music, the soundtrack matches the richness (and multiple aspect ratios) of Drew Daniels’ impeccable photography.
Waves could have crashed, appearing as either simplistic or sordid, and undermined its own message with messiness and maudlin meandering. Instead, it’s a film of astonishing elegance, bracing impact, and exquisite subtlety, a poetic and profound work that shapes conversation both intimate and grand. This film lives on a knife’s edge, and will not be for everyone. But it’s a film to be experienced, to be debated, to be angered and saddened and joyed by. It’s a film to be seen, full stop.