Waves blends incredible acting, a near-perfect soundtrack, and a heartbreaking story into an epic narrative about the pains of young love, masculinity, and raising a family.
Sometimes you can’t stop it. You feel helpless, at the mercy of the string of pictures being played before you. The film builds upon itself, tunneling deeper into your psyche the longer you’re glued to your chair. Some films envelop you, like a good book you can’t put down, one that keeps you up all night.
About halfway through Trey Edward Shults’s new family drama Waves, the mood changes. The movie’s perspective shifts from the son of the family Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), to the younger sister and daughter Emily (Taylor Russell). Far from delicate, this shift in point-of-view becomes an entirely different film. Waves could easily be two different movies.
Shults explores weighty themes throughout the film, making the most progress in regards to youth masculinity, the difficulties of relationships, and heartbreak within a middle-class family. The Williams family’s patriarch, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), leads the foursome with a strong moral backbone. He’s harsh, especially on Tyler, but also loving. He supports, but also punishes. Ronald Williams pushes the family and his son forward, willing them to move in one direction, even after an immense amount of pain fills their home midway through the film.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. has been the actor of the year. His meditated performance in Luce earlier in 2019 along with his angry and physical role in Waves combine to show a full range of capabilities. Harrison Jr. puts on an absolute show in this film, showing the rare ability to become a magnet on-screen, the one person you can’t take your eyes off.
Tyler’s view of masculinity and his (and his father’s) expectations for a young, African American man speaks volumes. His life spins out of control because of his own doing, but societal and family pressures should not be forgotten. He feels the need to be perfect, and once things unravel, that ideal of perfection cannot be upheld, and so he crumbles. There is a definite nugget of how young people interact with their parents, and the importance of honesty and open communication as well. The lack of said communication is (at least) partially the cause for the Williams’ issues.
The film’s apex occurs with about an hour to go, and you don’t see how the rest of the story can unfold. We know the ending, and it’s a rough one to watch. Up until this point, the film focuses on Tyler, his problems, his ambitions, and his inner struggle with his own life trajectory.
The first half of Waves showcases Kelvin Harrison Jr. and the second half showcases Taylor Russell, two actors that we will be seeing with increasing frequency over the next few years. Russell bears the brunt of the family’s trauma as the movie rests squarely on her shoulders as she wades through the end of high school. She grabs the task in stride, putting together a central performance that transcends a weaker second-half script. Harrison Jr.’s character is loud and showy, while Russell embodies a quiet teenager, one dealing with fallout rather than creating it.
The supporting cast shines, complete with a ripped Sterling K. Brown, a measured Renée Elise Goldsberry, the always good Lucas Hedges, and a solid Alexa Demie. Though the script dips into melodrama and falters as it goes on, the film itself stays above water due to those actors, giving committed and realistic performances bursting with pain.
The soundtrack Shults picks must be mentioned, as it features a large amount of Frank Ocean. Pick any interview with Shults about this film, and it’d be a good bet that he talks about Frank Ocean. Ocean clearly has had an effect on Shults, and the rest of the movie’s soundtrack learns toward rap and R&B. Though some classic songs make their way into Waves, the smooth honesty of Ocean remains in the driver’s seat. If you like Ocean, you won’t mind. If you don’t, it becomes one-track.
Waves feels real. Not always, but enough of the film holds true to real experiences by real people. It tackles issues that need more screen time. It portrays a family full of love yet in flux, clinging to values that have the power to break and to heal.
Waves grows into a film you can’t stop thinking about. It comes on strong, and ends with a whimper, a composed stillness that envelopes you. Right now, it isn’t the best movie of the year, but with time, it has the power to be.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.