Review: Waves (2019)




Trey Edward Shults


Trey Edward Shults


2h 15m


Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Renée Elise GOldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Clifton Collins Jr., Lucas Hedges

MPAA Rating

R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens

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Trey Edward Shults steps behind the camera for his third feature film, a daring, unvarnished look at a middle class black family on the edge of collapse. Made from his own screenplay, Waves is a haunting and unrelenting picture that slowly unravels as does the family.

Choosing to explore the internal relationship between the four members of the Williams family, Shults slowly maneuvers through the quietly fracturing quartet as they crumble under the weight of perceived expectations. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is a high school senior whose wrestling career he hopes will take him places, but a torn shoulder threatens to destroy his prospects. Sterling K. Brown is Tyler’s domineering father, a man who recognizes that blacks aren’t allowed to be ordinary, and pushes Tyler harder than he should, creating a rift between the two and leading to Tyler’s lashing out at his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).

Renée Elise Goldsberry plays Tyler’s stepmother who seems to have a strong relationship with him and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell), but whose own insecurity about her insertion into an existing family dynamic and replacement of their late mother leads her to push hard for acceptance. Emily is the last of the four and sits in her brother’s shadow, self-consciously staying out of the limelight as her father dotes on Tyler. The film ultimately becomes hers and being marginalized to the background gives her a surprising resilience that pushes the film towards its conclusion.

Shults shows the certitude of a veteran film director, running his characters through the wringer while exploring fascinating and deeply affecting truths about the black community and the struggles they must go through simply to exist, better yet to excel. His screenplay may not be compact, but it’s succinct, getting to the root of each situation with a precision and magnitude that elevates this particular film above most others in its genre.

Director of photography Drew Daniels creates a vivid backdrop into which these characters experience a roller coaster ride of emotions, his stark use of blues and reds keeps the film shifting between the ebb and flow of the titular waves and the inevitable descent into tragedy. This design is ably supported by the subtle scoring of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross who’ve done terrific work in cinema these last few years.

The slow burn technique of family dramas is used to great effect thanks to the terrific performances of Russell, Harrison Jr., Brown, Goldsberry, and Lucas Hedges as Emily’s late-film boyfriend. The film moves with clarity, but the gradual pacing enables the audience to relate to and experience the ups and downs the family goes through. Waves is never exactly what you expect it will be, but is every bit as realistic as you could hope or imagine.

Oscar Prospects

Potentials: Picture, Directing, Actor (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Actress (Taylor Russell), Supporting Actor (Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges), Supporting Actress (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Original Screenplay, Film Editing
Unlikelies: Cinematography

Review Written

December 19, 2019

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