Waves (USA / 15A / 136 mins)

In short: Mature & thoughtful

Directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges, Sterling K. Brown, Renee Elise Goldsberry.

The Plot: South Florida. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a promising young man who is training to be an athlete. However, a sports injury threatens to derail his career. His strong-willed father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) wants the best for his son, but Tyler is wayward, prone to outbursts of anger and needs direction. Tyler and his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) grew up not really not knowing their mother, instead being looked after by step-mother Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry). This seemingly secure family unit is threatened when further events affect Tyler’s outlook. With a potential disintegration of the family unit looming, Ronald and Emily will have to have to try and hold their family and their marriage together…

The Verdict: As its intricate story unfolds, Waves washes over you as a mature, thoughtful piece of filmmaking. The kind that we need more of in our divided world, especially now that a new decade has begun. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults takes as his subject a Florida-based African-American family in crisis, but refreshingly doesn’t feel the need to bring race into the conversation (a common theme in a number of American films in recent years). Waves is simply a portrait of an American family dealing with seismic events that start to rip at the fabric of what holds them all together. It’s also about the aftershocks of those events, as they trickle down to other family members whose lives are affected by the actions of another. This is a film that is very much about the consequences of those actions and damaging affects they have.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults showed some promise with his atmospheric if somewhat narratively unclear previous film, horror It Comes At Night. Waves is a bigger step forward for a third feature, as Shults is working on a broader canvas but with more dialogue and a plot that divides itself into two distinct segments. The first segment focuses on the hot-headed Tyler as he deals – or rather doesn’t deal – with a number of life-changing events that should define him, but due to his youth and immaturity he can’t. The second, more contemplative segment switches the focus to his quiet sister Emily, as she navigates a tender courtship with the socially awkward Luke (Lucas Hedges). This is in the wake of family events that have personally affected Emily, but she sees this as a chance to develop her own independence.

Shults shows an impressive range of directorial skills throughout, not just in his writing and solid direction but also in his style of filmmaking. It’s a beautiful film to look at, with the camera roving over wide-open Flordia landscapes but which also capture the intimate moments of two characters just talking and trying to make sense of where the family is going. The landscape here also includes the faces of his impressive troupe of actors, who internalise their characters’ thoughts for added dramatic heft. It’s what they don’t say that hits home harder. Kelvin Harrison Jr. was one of the breakout stars of last year in Luce. Here, he plays a similarly troubled young man but one who is more reactionary. It’s another impressive performance from an actor who is going places. Equally good is Taylor Russell, who is given the more difficult role of portraying a young woman navigating her own path in life.

Shults uses varying aspect ratios, perhaps to suggest that the walls are closing in on his characters as their options start to narrow. There is a circular aspect to this visual device, with the picture filling out as hope starts to re-emerge and the characters come to some sort of understanding of their situation. It’s a sympathetic film about modern American families (not just the central one) and the emotional glue that holds them together no matter what challenges come their way. In an increasingly divided country fraught with racial tensions and the rise of the right wing, Waves is a hopeful film. It packs a powerful punch that will resonate long after the credits roll. Impressive stuff all-around.

Rating: 4 / 5

Review by Gareth O’Connor