Review: Waves

A24’s Waves is one of the most anticipated films of the year. Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves is a look into the life of an upper middle class South Florida family and the ways we inherit trauma.

Like 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines, Waves is split into two related stories. The first half follows Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school student navigating the life most students live. When his shoulder is injured and he can no longer wrestler, Tyler spirals out of control and makes one bad decision after another. His poor decisions start to impact the relationship with his family (especially his father played by Sterling K. Brown) and his girlfriend Alexis (Euphoria’s Alexa Demie). Tyler’s spiral out of control is like watching a slow-motion train wreck – it’s going to be bad, you just don’t how bad it’s going to be.

The second half of the film focuses on Emily (Taylor Russell) and how she’s dealing with the events of the first half of the film and learning to survive through suffering.

Most films involving an African-American family going through struggle usually deal with poverty, gang violence, or both. Waves is a much different take. Instead of an absentee father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is an overbearing dad that expects a lot from his son. Ronald provided what he believed his kids needed to be successful, yet they still have to deal with loss, growth, and learning to come together during a tough tie. The beauty of these characters is each member of the family is well intentioned, even when their intentions do harm. They’re also able to make mistakes and the story doesn’t vilify them for it.

The star of the film is Kelvin Harrison Jr. The kid is an absolute star. He wowed audiences earlier this year in Luce and continues his amazing 2019 with another dominate performance. When you see Kelvin in interviews, he so much different than Tyler, yet he’s 100% believable as this high school athlete struggling to pull his way through some bad life decisions.  As comedian/actor Chris Lamberth pointed out, there’s so much the audience learns about who Tyler is through a conversation with his Alexis. The story drops you right in the middle of this kid’s life, the only real insight we’re given is Alexis complaints/concerns.

The other star is Taylor Russell. She was good in Netflix’s Lost in Space and in Escape Room, but this performance is special. She’s a fantastic young a young actress that Shults saves for the final act. Her electric performance comes out of nowhere. After the gut-wrenching first act, Russell walks into the frame as a calm heartwarming character to help put the audience at ease. She’s like an elite closer in baseball – Russell comes in to quiet the crowd and end things on a high note. Her best scene, and the best scene in the film, is conversation she has with Ronald while they’re fishing. The trauma Emily inherited comes out during that moment. It’s such a beautiful emotional scene, it’s impossible not to be moved. It will be the scene people play when she’s nominated during award season.

Waves is a heavy film. A very good film, but very very heavy. There’s a lot packed into the story that may be tough to watch. The incredible performances from the young actors may be enough to distract you from the dread that’s looming over the story. There’s a lot to unpack and some things that may trigger viewers. Seeing it with someone you can unpack it with will make the story easier to digest. If Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell aren’t nominated during award season, we riot!

Grade: B+