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First run Theater cinema

The third feature from writer/director Trey Edward Shults is an amped-up melodrama about a black family living in South Florida. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who played the son in Shults’ previous picture, It Comes at Night) delivers a heartbreaking performance as Tyler Williams, a popular high school senior who is well positioned on the wrestling team, gets good grades, has a sexy, loving girlfriend, and is closely watched over by attentive parents who are dedicated to his future. Tyler seems to have it all when this story starts, but the very things he has going for him soon become the forces in his life that trap him and begin to eat away at his sense of self.  

Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Escape Room’s Taylor Russell in a star-making turn) is almost invisible in her family, and in this movie, until the narrative unexpectedly shifts its focus to her. Their father, Ronald, (Sterling K. Brown in a fierce, nuanced performance) is the kind of overbearing patriarchal figure that would be a villain in many films of this ilk, but here comes off as a harsh but well-intentioned protector. He’s a man who views his job as the parent of a black son as a life-or-death responsibility, and, while somewhat neglectful of his daughter, he is dedicated to helping his boy develop the kind of physical armor and committed identity required to survive life in America. 

Rounding out the cast are Broadway’s Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton, The Color Purple, Rent) as Tyler and Emily’s stepmother; Alexa Demie (Brigsby Bear, Mid90s) as Tyler’s girlfriend; and Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the SeaLady BirdBoy Erased) as one of Tyler's teammates who becomes romantically involved with Emily. It’s an excellent cast all around, which helps to offset the sledgehammer filmmaking style. This is not a subtle picture and it’s not intended as such. 

Shults worked as an intern for Terrence Malick during the ‘10s, and the influence of that philosophical, avant-garde, frustrating filmmaker is clear. Waves plays like a Malick picture on Adderall. Many of the scenes unfold in long takes and cinematographer Drew Daniels’ camera is constantly moving—often spinning in 360-degree rotations and getting up in the actor’s faces to the point where it feel’s like every character’s personal space is being violated. The movie has the cold, harsh look of digital video shot with available light. For the first half, this visual aesthetic comes across as punishing to the point where it will test many viewers ability to stick it out.  The aspect ratio shifts from 1.85:1, to 2.35:1, to 1.33:1—but these screen size changes don’t expand the world of this movie; they effectively shrink it so that things feel more and more claustrophobic. This framing technique reverses at the halfway point, where the tone and rhythm of the picture also transform as the narrative focus shifts from one protagonist to another. The visual style intensifies the viewer’s anxiety for the first half then releases us from its grip so that we begin to see the beauty that’s been there all long.

Tyler Williams is a very different kind of high-achieving young man of color than Luce Edgar, the role Harrison Jr. played in this same year’s thought-provoking dramatic thriller Luce. And while the two pictures couldn’t be more different in style or tone, they make for many interesting comparisons. Luce is a movie made by a black director (Nigerian-American filmmaker Julius Onah) that is aimed squarely at the predominantly white, liberal, art-house audience. Waves is a movie made by a white director that seems tuned for African-Americans but will undoubtedly appeal more to those same white, art-house elites—which is perhaps the picture’s biggest issue. 

The first half feels less like a reflection of lived experiences and more like an attempt to force viewers to confront a reality they too often look away from. I would not go so far as to call it cultural tourism or appropriation, but it relies on a kind of cultural shorthand that places each character within a well-established frame and then attempts to explore what’s behind each “type.” The second half plays a little too much like wish-fulfillment; as if escaping from one’s past is as easy as forgiving your parents for their mistakes. But oversimplifications of this sort are perfectly acceptable in cinema if the narrative and themes come across as truthful, which they mostly do in Waves.

Some of Shults’ ideas and techniques work much better than others, and Waves is a difficult film to fully embrace. But it offers many rewards to viewers who are willing to commit to it. With its pacing and elliptical narrative framing (and its literal visual framing), the film plays less like the ebbs and flows the title might suggest and more like one giant wave. It builds up and approaches with ever-intensifying energy and apprehension about its inevitable hard crash against the shore, and then it slowly, peacefully recedes back into a great wide-open ocean of seemingly limitless possibilities.

Twitter Capsule:
Shults' punishing yet inspiring melodrama about a black family in South Florida plays like a Terrence Malick picture on Adderall. Nuanced performances from a sensational cast offset the sledgehammer direction making for an uneasy but rewarding balance.

Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Produced by Kevin Turen, James Wilson, and Trey Edward Shults

Written by Trey Edward Shults

With: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr., Neal Huff, Bill Wise, and Harmony Korine

Cinematography: Drew Daniels
Editing: Trey Edward Shults and Isaac Hagy
Music: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Runtime: 135 min
Release Date: 15 November 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1