Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Premise: A family story in two acts. In the first act, the teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) of a well off African American family strives for excellence in academics and athletics but his life goes off the rails. In the second act, the daughter (Taylor Russell) discovers love.
What Works: Waves is a beautifully made family drama that manages to be high polished and slickly produced while also gritty and visceral. Much of that has to do with the filmmaking craft. Waves is beautifully shot and the filmmakers employ unorthodox techniques. The picture includes bold color choices that manage the emotional temperature and the filmmakers manipulate the aspect ratio to limit the framing of the action. The wrestling sequences communicate the rough-and-tumble physicality of the sport and later scenes with the daughter capture the tenderness and awkwardness of first love. The sound design is also impressive. The electronic music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross matches the visual style in both its soft fluidity as well as in its pulsing beats. The music is weaved into the soundtrack and Waves uses digetic audio in ways that are also musical; in one scene the seatbelt notification alert inside a car plays like a countdown, complementing the escalating tension. Waves runs a bit longer than most films but the pacing is perfect. Even when the film slows down nothing is out of place. The protracted transitions between sequences are appropriate to the pensive mood and tone of the movie. Waves showcases tremendous performances especially by the core cast who play the family. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Tyler, a young man who is working hard under the tutelage of his father played by Sterling K. Brown. Harrison has a complicated role and his character is pushed to a breaking point by a mix of bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. The young man’s relationship with his father is complex; there is love between them but also fear and that fear drives the young man to excellence at first and disaster later on. Taylor Russell plays Emily, the daughter of the family, and she has a distinctly different trajectory from her brother. Emily transitions from girlhood to womanhood and Russell captures that in her performance.
What Doesn’t: In Waves’ second act, the son and the parents mostly drop out of the story. That makes sense since the point of Emily’s story is her isolation and the way in which her romance allows her to find a way back to her parents. But the absence of Tyler, and almost any mention of him, is jarring because so much of the film’s first act involved him. Lucas Hedges is cast as Emily’s love interest. Hedges has had a really good run with these kinds of roles as seen in Manchester By the Sea and Boy Erased and Ben is Back but he’s reached a point at which he’s too old to play high schoolers. He just doesn’t look convincing as a teenager anymore. These are minor reservations about what is an otherwise excellent motion picture.
Bottom Line: Waves is a nuanced and beautifully crafted piece of work. The film is impressive in its scope and depth, capturing the interior lives of this family as well as a broader story of tragedy and healing and Waves does all of this without becoming schmaltzy or pandering.
Episode: #780 (December 15, 2019)