Director Trey Edward Shults has a clear interest in the tools needed for families to survive whatever dangers may come their way. His sophomore film from 2017, It Comes at Night—also an A24 film—explored a heightened metaphor for the terrors parents inflict upon their children just as easily as they themselves fear it, and in Waves, Shults presents a far more grounded, but equally as harrowing tale about the fragility of success in modern America.
In a sense, Waves is essentially two films in one, each part focusing on a different sibling in this family of four living in South Florida. The initial viewpoint follows Tyler Williams, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., a talented and well-liked athlete with a beautiful girlfriend he adores, as well as attentive, upper middle class parents who support him. But they also push him to strive for true greatness, specifically his steely-eyed father played by Sterling K. Brown.
Cinematographer Drew Daniels once again collaborates with Shults to transform otherwise plain transitional scenes where characters may simply just be driving around into suspiciously dramatic moments where anything bad can happen, as the camera is always strategically placed in precarious corners, shifting constantly to prevent the viewer from feeling secure in the safety of these teenagers. This is a successful gimmick in helping non-parents watching the film understand perhaps a sliver of what parents tend to go through when they imagine what their children are up to when they’re not around, and how absolutely frightening this experience can truly be, even when nothing bad has happened yet.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. already proved himself a dynamic performer in Luce from earlier this year, and Waves solidifies him as one of the most talented young actors to watch in this coming decade. His portrayal of Tyler stretches to incredible lengths, as we get to know what makes him tick from actions as simple as the way he texts on his phone to more bombastic sequences involving drug use.
There is a lot missing in the script when it comes to Tyler’s anger and where it originates, as well as why it manifests in the way it does, almost to unbelievable lengths. His story is an effective one because of the performance and what goes unsaid in his implied history, but it may be difficult for some viewers to connect or find his choices all that relatable, perhaps because this character at times seems cosmically doomed.
Waves devotes equal measure to the younger sister in the family, Emily Williams, played by Taylor Russell. Her performance in Escape Room at the beginning of 2019 was certainly enticing for that genre film, and Waves further realizes her potential as the story positions her as its soul. Far from a flashy performance, Russell spends most of the film almost like a ghost, barely even observing her own surroundings, that is until she encounters a classmate, played by Lucas Hedges, who takes her on a journey of love and self-discovery.
It would be easy to harshly criticize Waves for committing to the trope of a relationship apparently solving deep traumas, but the film salvages its goodwill in this respect by allowing Emily to be an active force of her own destiny, never submissive to this newfound desire to share life with someone outside her family. The result is a touching illustration of how love can heal in its own way, even if it’s not ultimately enough to solve every problem or erase the hurt festering within. And if passionate love can restore faith, perhaps a repairing of familial love can be restored as well.
At times, Waves can be hard to endure in its own self-imposed misery, and its elongated runtime of 135 minutes can perhaps be too painful for some audiences to sit through. But the film certainly rewards viewers who stick with what Shults is trying to say in what is easily his best film yet, down to a masterfully complicated score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and an eclectic, multi-faceted soundtrack boosting the storytelling through well-timed, if not slightly risky, needle drops.
Waves isn’t an experience everyone will appreciate in the same way or to the fullest extent, but for those willing to gamble on the film’s potential, similar to how parents gamble on having children in the first place, this is a film with plenty of redemption to offer.
Waves is in theaters now and playing everywhere on December 6.
Jon is the co-host of Cinemaholics and author of two books: the novel Killerjoy and a book about Pixar called The Pixar Theory. His favorite movie is usually The Mask of Zorro (don’t ask).