Trey Edward Shults’ WAVES is finally about to get its release to theaters after opening to widespread plaudits on the festival circuit. I expect those plaudits to continue as WAVES is likely to heavily considered for year end awards. With good reason.
Like Trey Edward Shults’ two previous films, KRISHA and IT COMES AT NIGHT, family drama is at the center of WAVES. At the beginning, everything seems like it’s an ideal African-American family that’s found success in an upper middle class suburb of South Florida. The father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is stern and pushes his son, but he runs a successful business, and cares about the quality of his work. The stepmother, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry), balances the father’s stern nature through warmth and supportiveness. The son, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star athlete, popular, has a girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) whom he refers to as “Goddess”, and is obviously smart. And the younger daughter, Emily (Taylor Russell), is just your normal teenager and always there for Tyler.
It seems perfect. And it’s all going to come crashing down.
WAVES isn’t particularly surprising in its story. It’s kind of in its title, crest, trough, crest. Small things cascade and build to bigger things. Tyler seems to have it all, and then things like a shoulder injury start piling up and he spirals down. It’s a little surprising in its structure, the first half of the movie features Tyler and the second half features Emily, but it’s not very surprising in its direction. You always know where it’s going. So much so, that the film drags at points.
What WAVES does exceptionally well is capture the moments in life that perhaps would be skipped over in blockbusters, but matters to all of us on a day to day basis. The camera will do a 360 degree turn in a vehicles as everyone is singing along with the radio and having a good time full of life and joy. We see the characters feel the wind on their faces as they’re driving. They experience the sun. And the water. Trey Edward Shults interned on TREE OF LIFE and has worked with Terence Malick on multiple occasions, and it shows. WAVES strives for that lyricism at all times.
It’s a lyricism that is achieved through a terrific set of performances, top to bottom. Taylor Russell, in particular, is exceptional, conveying an inner life and inner conflict with a glance here, or a hesitation there. Everybody feels like a fully realized person with a backstory that informs all the choices they make. Sometimes that leads to conflicts through good intentions, but it makes it so that there’s no simple good guys and bad guys. I fully expect WAVES to be up for some acting ensemble awards.
WAVES is also beautifully photographed, albeit the South Florida setting certainly brings up comparisons to MOONLIGHT. Perhaps, not in its favor at all times as MOONLIGHT remains one of the most resonant movies of the last decade. Coupled with the visuals, there’s a killer soundtrack that creates a sonic landscape that’s exceptional. At one point, WAVES was envisioned as a musical, and that’s still kind of there in how prominent the music is. Not least of which is a terrific score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Other than a few pacing issues and perhaps casting Lucas Hedges who looks a little old for a high school student, there’s not much to fault with WAVES. WAVES captures a rare spirituality of film and is often a knockout experience. It perhaps doesn’t have anything truly profound to say, but it won’t be forgotten soon. I expect that it’s going to be much discussed in the next few months.