Dan's Review: "Waves" a powerful family drama; one of the best films of the year
Dec 04, 2019 10:51PM
● By Dan Metcalf
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Taylor Russell in Waves - © 2019 A24.
Rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens.
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Neal Huff, Bill Wise, David Garelik, Ruben E. A. Brown.
Written and Directed by Trey Edwards Shults.
The most meaningful segment of any society is found in families. Trey Edwards Shults seems to have an affinity for broken families and broken people, as he did with 2016’s Krisha and 2017’s It Comes at Night. His third project is Waves, the story of a family trying to pick up the pieces after a series of bad choices leads to unbearable tragedy.
It would appear that the Williams family has it all. Teenaged Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a star high school wrestler with a cute girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is a quiet student who doesn’t have a boyfriend (yet). Tyler’s father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) owns his own construction business while his wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is a healthcare worker. The family lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in a nice home, driving late-model cars. As the wrestling season begins, Tyler feels a twinge of pain in his shoulder but brushes it off as minor annoyance as his dad pushes him to exceed. The pain grows and an MRI reveals severe damage to Tyler’s shoulder that will require season-ending surgery. Tyler refuses to tell his parents about the diagnosis and continues wrestling while overmedicating on opioids, some of which he steals from his dad’s medicine cabinet. His deception comes full circle when his shoulder gives out during a wrestling match and he suffers a permanent injury. Meanwhile, Alexis reveals that she’s pregnant, but refuses to have an abortion, causing a rift with Tyler and an eventual breakup. Tyler turns to more pain pills, recreational drugs, and alcohol, leading him into a spiral that ends in a deadly prom night altercation. He is sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 30 years. Tyler’s choices leave the family in ruins, with Ronald and Catherine on the verge of separation and Emily shunned at school. Things turn around for her as Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s wrestling teammates takes an interest in Emily. Romance blossoms and Emily helps Luke come to terms with his estranged father, who is dying of cancer. Her parents are also forced to come to terms with their responsibilities to each other and their family.
Waves is an incredible cinematic achievement for Shults, who leans on some fantastic work from cinematographer Drew Daniels. Every scene, every light, every motion of the camera is deliberate, drawing on visual metaphors that bring the audience right into the middle of the Williams family’s trauma, reckoning, and redemption. There are no preachy scenes of dialogue, just honest emotion and accountability that is rare in family dramas. These perfectly timed and presented elements allow the audience to care for the characters on screen and internalize their struggle.
While the entire cast performs admirably, Sterling K. Brown stands out as the father trying to deal with his own blind standards for the kids he loves. I hope he gets all the postseason awards recognition he deserves for his powerful performance.
Waves is also distinctive for its innovative presentation, which is broken into two parts. The first half of the film centers on Tyler’s fall from grace, while the second half is focused on Emily, who seems like a forgotten side player in the first half. She emerges as the family’s best chance for redemption, offering hope for reconciliation and healing. This is one of the many reasons I love Waves, because rather than offering a simple character study or maudlin melodrama, it offers a roadmap for dealing with tragedy and poor decisions.
I love some movies because they pluck at my emotions or give me a thrill. Waves is a unique experience with emotional power that is also complemented by amazing filmmaking.