‘Waves’ Review: The Shattering Ebb and Flow of Family Life

The camera doesn’t just move in “Waves,” it hurtles with terrific urgency. As you’re swept up in the immersive motion, the kinetic energy, you notice the passing beauty of the images, their compositional elegance. Mostly, though, you just try to keep up as voices boom and the camera pushes in, pulls out, flows in circles or sprints forward. This great whoosh creates a contact high even if, as one shot rapidly gives way to another, it feels as if time is running out.

A domestic melodrama in an anguished key, “Waves” is the story of a Florida family nearly undone by a shocking tragedy. It’s also a spectacular testament to the talents of the writer-director Trey Edward Shults, making just his third feature-length movie. As in his estimable debut, “Krisha” (2016), about a woman having an epic meltdown at a family Thanksgiving, Shults has created a deep, at times overwhelming sensory experience. With sinuous cinematography and an intricate sound design — floods of saturated color, bursts of ear-pounding music — he expresses intensities of feeling (love, pain, fury, agony) that create a visceral emotional impact.

The story in “Waves” is tragic, blunt; it turns on a catastrophic mistake and its devastating aftermath. Bookended by the image of a girl riding a bike alone, it unfolds in two neatly complementary sections. The first pivots on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black 17-year-old student and wrestler struggling to keep the fast-moving parts of his life in balance. He’s an appealing kid, no longer a child yet not quite a man. By turns industrious and restless, dutiful and disobedient, he is also graced with sensitivities that his carefully constructed wall of muscles can’t obscure.

In the first half, Shults keeps close to Tyler, creating a palpable intimacy — the director of photography is Drew Daniels — that locks you in with the character, his upper-middle-class home and larger world. Tyler is often on the move and you’re right there with him, whether he’s driving with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie), lifting weights with his stern father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), or sharing a private moment with his sympathetic stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Harrison movingly exteriorizes Tyler’s mercurial emotions, shifting between adolescent bravura and childlike woundedness, and later tapping into the sorrow and rage that engulf him.

At this stage in his young career, Shults is a stronger image-maker than writer and, like many American filmmakers, he has a tendency to overexplain, including in some parent-child talks. As a black man in the United States, Ronald has been pushed, and he pushes Tyler, who, in turn, pushes himself until he breaks. Shults, who is white, deftly negotiates the heaviness of race, even if a speech that Ronald delivers to Tyler about the burdens of being black in the United States sounds as if it might have been written for the benefit of white viewers. An intensely empathetic performer, Brown fills these words up with feeling, but it’s hard not to think this father taught his children this lesson long ago.

When the tragedy finally comes it is cataclysmic, and unutterably sad. Soon thereafter, the focus shifts to Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell, an open-faced heartbreaker). Unlike her brother, Emily is quiet and physically contained, almost shut down, and Shults adjusts his filmmaking accordingly. By that point, the freneticism that accompanied Tyler’s introduction has already given way to slower camera movements and cuts. But now, in the aftermath of the family’s trauma and with the focus on Emily, everything looks — feels — smoother, stiller, more pacific, creating a sense of quietude that is a relief but that also underscores her anguished isolation.

Like Barry Jenkins, the Safdie brothers and Robert Eggers, Shults belongs to a group of young American expressionists who, despite the differences in their subjects, share a commitment to visual storytelling. (Dee Rees’s “Pariah” falls into this camp, too.) Words remain crucial for these filmmakers, of course. But they use visual style to express inner worlds, and show interiority instead of explaining it, unlike some of their chattier, more TV-ready peers. Cinematic expressionism is most associated with German film of the 1920s, but can be found across genres and in the work of artists as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Claire Denis, Tony Scott, Terrence Malick and Gaspar Noé.

Shults seems to nod both at Noé (in a red-steeped scene throbbing with bass and violence) and at Jenkins, specifically in the vision of Tyler and his girlfriend embracing in a blur of deep blue water. The beauty of this moment, evoking the oceanic feeling, pierces the heart. It conveys Tyler’s connection to his girlfriend and to the world, which in turn seems to hold the lovers in its embrace. Here, the self and the universe are as one. Shults seems to be suggesting a similar holistic sensibility when his pirouetting camera draws circles around characters, most notably in mirrored scenes of the siblings, each riding in a car with a lover. (A very good Lucas Hedges plays Emily’s boyfriend.)

All of Shults’s stylistic brio and formal inventiveness is finally in the service of a story about love, its mutability and fragility. He avoids political grandstanding, creating a narrative rationale for the tragedy. But he also connects it to the institutionalized violence that Ronald refers to in his talk with Tyler and which, simply by virtue of being African-American, hangs over this family, threatening it and its love. When the screen turns into a blur of color, this time from whirring police-car lights, the dread it illuminates on Ronald’s face speaks louder and far more hauntingly than words.


Rated R for bloody violence. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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