“Waves” feels like two movies in one. The first a story of teen angst writ large with a tragic outcome. The second is a tale of reconciliation and compassion. They dovetail to form one of the year’s best films.
Set in South Florida, “Waves” begins as a slice-of-life drama. We meet high-school wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) as he and girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) flirt during school hours. We then witness the young athlete’s home life with empathetic mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and domineering father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” says Ronald. “We have to be 10 times better.”
Tyler is driven, a good student and star wrestler who seems bound for scholarships and the Ivy League. A closer look, however, reveals a troubling undercurrent that suggests he is slowly being crushed by the burden of expectations. He self-medicates for a shoulder injury that could end his wrestling career and when his relationship with Alexis takes a bad turn, so does his personality.
The second half focusses on Emily’s coming of age as she begins a relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a sweet-tempered boy dealing with his own family drama.
No spoilers here. The beauty of writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s film is the discovery of it, being drawn into the story and the characters. Shults doles out emotional moment after emotional moment and yet there isn’t a melodramatic second to be seen. That’s partially due to the uniformly wonderful, naturalistic performances but also from a story that feels grounded in real life.
Shults camera is intimate, up-close-and-personal, allowing the viewer to be drawn in. His inventive visual sense and beautiful direction is the very definition of show-me-don’t-tell-me and provides for much introspection. This is a movie that speaks just as loudly when it is in silence as when its characters are talking. The real action in “Waves” happens behind the eyes of its characters.
Stylistically he uses ingenious methods to feed his scenes. In one sequence an annoying seatbelt chime adds tension to an already tense situation and a text conversation that devolves into an all-caps shouting match has a sense of urgency that is very compelling. It is exhilarating filmmaking that takes chances and, coming hot on the heels of his other films “Krisha” and “It Comes at Night,” cements Shults’s place as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.
Fueled by a soundtrack by from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, “Waves” details the hardships that come with difficult decisions but also the redemption that can come with forgiveness. Highly recommended.