The Tides of Waves Are Messy, But Always Powerful And Compelling (Review)

by | Nov 25, 2019

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults first found a filmmaking home for himself with A24 after the Sundance success of his debut feature Krisha, and both parties continued their working relationship together through the psychological drama It Comes At Night. Now, Shults has crafted a new film with the niche studio in Waves, a family drama centered around the trials and tribulations of an African-American family living in Miami, Florida. 

A tragedy leaves an African-American family’s life in uncertain disarray in the newest family drama from Trey Edward Shults.

With Waves, Shults continues to evolve his filmmaking style with techniques he used in It Comes At Night, which received critical acclaim and a solid profit at the box office, but left audiences wanting more answers to the questions surrounding its narrative. There are instances where Waves takes turns for the melodramatic, especially when Shults gets overzealous with implementing a previously used storytelling technique, but the film remains transfixing and moving for its runtime thanks to its heartfelt tone, creative cinematography and stellar performances from its ensemble cast.

Waves follows the Williams family unit as they live out their daily lives in Miami, Florida: father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) provides for his family by running his own construction business, and his wife Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) supports her stepson Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and pre-teen stepdaughter Emily (Taylor Russell). Tyler has everything a teenager could want: a promising future as an amateur wrestler, a girlfriend he loves in Alexis (Alexa Demie), a lot of friends, and consistent high marks in academia. One major factor that contributes to Tyler’s drive is Ronald’s demanding nature; the father-figure goes so far as to back up his high expectations by the truth that as an African-American man, he had to work ten times harder than everyone else for himself and his family to live comfortably, and wants to instill that desire into his son.

But that aspiration causes Tyler to push himself harder than ever, to the point where he wrestles with an injury that doctors warn will get worse overtime if he doesn’t go into surgery. Things get more complicated for the teenager following a crossroads in his relationship with Alexis, and upon a series of further setbacks, a horrific incident occurs that renders life for the Williams family drastically altered. As Ronald and Catherine attempt to process the events that transpired, Emily isolates herself from her peers until she meets classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges). Through the romantic relationship that buds between them, Emily learns how to cope with the tragedy, reconnect with her parents and open herself up again to the world around her. 

The strongest aspect of Waves is the acting from its talented ensemble. Brown puts in a great nuanced performance as the breadwinner of his family, disciplining Tyler in a stern manner while later trying to reconnect with Emily in a private moment between the two that’s so heartfelt with its sincerity. And Emily herself is portrayed with the perfect amount of resolve from Russell, whose wide-eyed facial expressions convey her inner anxieties over how she’s perceived by her peers, and longing for her fractured household to come back together. Meanwhile, Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s breakout year in film continues with his powerhouse performance as Tyler, who wears raw intensity and emotion through all the disappointments, frustrations, and outbursts that occur during his downward spiral. 

Waves is also tremendous on a technical level; the cinematography from Drew Daniels does a great job of setting the viewer inside the world of the Williams family through shots that pan 360 degrees in all of Tyler’s joyrides, tracking shots that follow Tyler in a candid style, and first-person POV shots from Emily’s perspective as she watches her parents argue from afar. Even the sound design aids in immersing the audience through a dynamic electronic score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that conveys Tyler’s inner anxiety during a medical procedure, as well as the solace Emily feels in intimate scenes with Luke.

However, Waves is a tale of two halves, and the first focuses on the myriad of pressures Tyler comes to face, and those manifest themselves in the form of Shults changing the aspect ratio after certain developments. He employed this stylistic choice in It Comes At Night with the appropriate level of subtlety, but the aspect ratios of Waves jump ad nauseum between five different aspect ratios that close Tyler and his family into the frame as tensions mount between them. Shults’ effort to juggle ideas about familial, societal and racial pressures with this stylistic choice is admirable, but it sadly lands with surface-level, uneven results that morph Waves into an over-the-top melodrama. 

What’s also worth noting is that while the film is well-edited from beginning to end, Tyler’s progression in the script happens so fast to the point of being in-your-face and over-the-top, as do some of the music choices, which range from syncing in perfect harmony (e.g. when “Be Above It” by Tame Impala plays in a montage introducing us to Tyler) to on-the-nose, such as when “I Am A God” by Kanye West underscores a dark illustration of rebellion. Ronald also briefly mentions how the misfortune has affected his business through a quick line of dialogue, when his personal struggle to cope with the event warrants a more visual exploration from his point of view.

All this being said, Waves is best in its most sincere and intimate moments, and the film gets there once the Williams family has to come to grips with the tragedy that’s befallen them. The humanity and restraint on display packs the most punches when Shults lets his incredible ensemble and eye for vibrant cinematography tell the story. In juxtaposing an incensed response to strife with that of an empathetic one, the film remains a unique family drama that’s ambitious and fresh in its execution. Your mileage may vary depending on the directorial tricks Shults employs, but despite its turns for the melodramatic, the compelling tide of Waves ultimately gets stronger as it goes along.

Rating: 3.5/5