Waves Second Opinion: A Combustible Masterwork

December 15, 2019
M.N. Miller 0
Film, Film Reviews


Trey Shults’s latest film is a combustible masterwork.

Wow. I mean, wow. It’s really the only way to describe Trey Edward Shults’s (It Comes At Night) latest film, Waves, which is a combustible masterwork. Waves has such a livewire pulse it’s practically alive with energy and a deep emotional current that runs to the surface. It’s a testament of how fragile our most intimate relationships are, how difficult it can be to piece them back together, and how the healing power of forgiveness has a euphoric effect on everyone around us.

Waves‘ story is about a comfortable, suburban African-American household, the Williams, that seems to be hitting career and personal peaks, until the family is not on as much firm footing as it seemed. You have Tyler (Luce‘s Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a hard-working student, a talented athlete, and a gifted musical prodigy. He’s pushed to be great because life is not easy, per his father Ronald (Emmy Winner Sterling K. Brown). He has a supportive physician step-mother (Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry) and a quiet, but loving little sister (as I predicted, a star in the making, Escape Room‘s Taylor Russell) who round out their nuclear family bliss. That’s until Tyler feels the floor go out from under him, as he suffers a setback, and his girlfriend, Alexis (Mid90s‘ Alexa Demie) tells him she’s pregnant.

Shult’s film is an experience like no other I’ve had this year. You wouldn’t think there was any way Schults and company could find a different angle on the family drama, but they did. It’s hair raising the way his script breaks up our predetermined conventional narrative norms of story arcs by starting so high, crashing to a blistering low by the end of its second act, and putting everything back together for you, making the film whole again, and leaving the viewer exhilarated.

The film’s technical quality in lighting, sound design and editing is a character among itself. It compliments almost every emotional chord struck by the actor’s portrayal and overwhelmingly rewards with the film’s visual eye and wickedly tight pacing. I’m certain it will be ignored during an awards season run, as the Academy tends to go for the standard, and it is too unique to be embraced by all. In fact, the entire film is so unusual, thoughtful, heartbreaking, and bursting with life it likely won’t be embraced for years until moviegoers catch up with what the team behind Waves accomplished.

The cast is exceptional, and I can’t imagine anyone having a better cumulative year than Harrison Jr. has, now with Waves and the radically thought-provoking Luce.  He has now announced his arrival as the top up and coming talent for the next generation. I loved Taylor Russell’s quietly effective and moving portrayal of getting her through those formative years, where mental health can overcome any teenager; she comes out of the other side liberated from the shackles a tragedy had upon her. Lucas Hedges also shines, in a small but powerful cameo, and continues to pick smart roles in a wide variety of projects.

The performance that had my head spinning was the tough and eventually broken portrayal by This Is Us‘s Sterling K. Brown. The scene with Russell on the picnic table is so heartfelt, thoughtful, and endearing; you can’t take your eyes off him. His transformative take on toxic masculinity that reinvents himself into a calmer, more loving father is deeply moving and beautifully done.

Waves may be an honest-to-God instant classic, but maybe just for film geeks everywhere. It’s so different, not only in storytelling, tone, and more than anything, visually, I can see the film either having a revered Tree of Life reputation or having cinephiles looking back at it like Paul Haggis’s Crash, and equating it like a bad hairstyle then wondering what were we thinking. I had a conversation with film critic Mike Frank about Shult’s film, and he questioned himself if it was the masterpiece he initially thought or a misguided attempt to make a statement; based on lower than expected Rotten Tomatoes score (85%), some critics are more confounded than you’d expect.

One thing though is for certain, Waves is getting people talking, and causing spirited debate among film fiends, and that’s precisely what great art is all about.

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