Synopsis: Traces the journey of a suburban African-American family as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.
Stars: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Running Length: 135 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: There’s a part of every movie going experience that I dread the most. No, it’s not battling traffic to get to the theater or praying the person next to me isn’t a talker/texter/cruncher. It’s not even a fear of being disappointed by a highly anticipated title I’ve been counting down the days to or hoping the seat I’m going to be occupying will allow me to cross my legs (I’m tall and these tree trunks need to be stretched!) that gives my brow a slight bead of sweat. It’s the thought of being asked immediately by my neighbor when the credits roll “What did you think?” or worse, being asked to write it down. I totally understand these quick takes are necessary for feedback and want to do my best to provide an honest answer but I usually need time to process what I’m feeling just a tad longer. Often, my responses are pretty dumb (no, really) and I wind up feeling differently the more I ponder.
Take Waves, for instance. After 135 minutes of fairly intense drama, my first reaction wasn’t entirely positive. Knowing the film had strong buzz from its festival circuit debut coming in to the screening gave me a framework for what I was going to see but the initial response was in answer to the emotion I felt at the experience and not the movie. Does that make sense? The more I thought about the film and it’s complex look at a seemingly picture perfect family that begins to break down the less personal emotion I attached to it and the more critical analysis I was able to apply. I still can look at the film for how it made it feel but the overall consensus is now based on more than that hot take in the moment.
Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce) is a Florida teenager in the middle of a successful senior year. He’s popular, a good student, he’s in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and he’s a star athlete. The achievements haven’t come without hard work and we see how much he’s pushed by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, Frozen II) to train and stay on task. Stepmother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry, The House with a Clock in Its Walls) senses he may be taking on too much but doesn’t want to get in between father and son, and it doesn’t appear that his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell, Escape Room) pays much attention to the comings and goings of her more outgoing brother. Life for this family goes on without much disruption — everyone stays in their own lane.
An injury that threatens to derail his plans for the future is the first fissure in Tyler’s picture perfect life but it won’t be the last. A physical set-back becomes the least troubling bit of business for the young man as what seemed to be a solid groundwork turns out to have been constructed on something entirely more delicate. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults takes Tyler down a believably troubled path of self-destruction that’s hard to watch, mainly because of how quickly it all happens. From one issue springs two more, which open up old wounds that never truly healed. What starts as a fall from grace for Tyler has a ripple effect for the entire Williams family and it leads to a devastating turn of events that changes all of their lives forever.
And that’s only half of the movie.
Around the midway point, Shults changes the protagonist to Emily to track her high school experience after the events that have already transpired, and it feels like an entirely different film all together. Where the preceding hour was a vibrant mélange of a world constantly in motion that barely took a breath, the brakes have now been slammed and we’re slowly examining the aftermath of a tragedy with the people often left with more questions than answers. Using Emily as a focal point for intuiting the grief that remains after a loss, Shults eschews making her a social pariah in her school but instead quickly gives her a confidant in Luke (Lucas Hedges, Ben is Back) a socially awkward boy in her class that knows her story and likes her anyway, which comes as a surprise.
As their relationship deepens and becomes something more mature, Emily begins to see the difference between a partnership that is working and one that isn’t. That’s how a subplot with Ronald and Catherine is introduced, giving Brown and Goldsberry a bit more to work with than they had earlier in the film. It’s here where Shults starts to veer into overly familiar territory with the couple being written a little broadly and making discoveries that are expected and overly dramatized. When Shults sticks with Tyler in the first hour and Emily and Luke in the second the real authenticity is found and from there comes powerful moments that will resonate with anyone wishing they had spoken up sooner or intervened on someone’s behalf earlier.
Leaving the screening of Waves I originally found myself favoring the first half because it was the more tangible piece, the easier and more straight-forward narrative to grab onto. As he did earlier in the year with the underseen Luce, Harrison is an undeniable force onscreen and he’s someone you want to know more about, even if you already know you won’t ever truly figure them out. The more I sat with the movie, though, I couldn’t get that second section out of my mind. It’s not as easy to interpret and it goes slack far more than it should, but when it gets in its groove there’s some riveting stuff going on, providing Russell with a handful of excellent scenes that she often plays solo. I’m not sure if it was Shults intention to make any scene featuring adults feel intrusive but they do, I kept wishing for less of Goldsberry (who is otherwise strong) and Brown (who pushes the dramatics too much) and more with the honesty of their children.
Released by the rising indie distributor A24, Waves fits perfectly into their model of championing burgeoning filmmakers like Shults and for his third high profiled film he’s shown continued advancement in storytelling and technique. By and large, Waves finds Shults navigating new territory and even the small diversions into oft-traveled waters don’t take away from the lingering bit of sadness that follows you out of the theater. It’s also quite well made, another Shults trademark. The cinematography and ever-present score are nigh-hypnotic and the performances from Harrison and Russell fuel the kinetic energy that keeps Waves riding high.
See, I just needed a little more time and then I could come up with something a little more thoughtful. My apologies to my patient screening reps 🙂