Waves begins with a dazzling 360-degree spin inside Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) car as he drives with one leg dangling out of the window while singing along to the radio with girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). It’s a beautifully choreographed moment that captures the sparkling chemistry between these young lovers. It’s immediately clear we are in the hands of a filmmaker brimming with ideas and stylistic verve. Trey Edward Shults’ overwhelmingly moving and sumptuously filmed third feature cements him as one of the most thrilling directors working today.
Waves charts the highs and lows of a suburban African-American family, initially focusing on the increasing stresses on the life of teenage wrestler Tyler. His domineering father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), while well-intentioned, pushes Tyler to his limits with his wrestling training to the point where Tyler is scared to reveal the severe extent of a persistent shoulder injury. He shares an affectionate relationship with girlfriend Alexis, but the pair violently clash when she falls pregnant. As the pressure mounts on Tyler, he begins taking his father’s prescription pills and things soon spiral devastatingly out of control.
This first segment is at times unbearably tense and heart-breaking. Shults adroitly invests us in this family’s life and then proceeds in delivering a series of emotional gut punches that will leave audiences reeling. Harrison is a revelation in the lead role, bringing a rawness and magnetism to his character that keeps us on side even when tragedy strikes. Brown also puts in a genuine performance, balancing the overbearing yet well-meaning aspects of his character brilliantly. The intensity of the film’s first half gives way to a more tender and delicate second half as the spotlight turns on Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and her blossoming romance with dorky teenager Luke (Lucas Hedges). We are treated to a host of charming, sweetly awkward scenes between the pair as their initial awkward exchanges soon develop into a deeply loving relationship.
Hedges is an utter delight as Luke, bringing welcome comedic relief to proceedings while Taylor Russell puts in an award-worthy turn filled with empathy, nuance and authenticity. Their chemistry together is so wholesome, warm and endearing – this is a cast performing at the very top of their game. Waves is propelled by Drew Daniels’ truly gorgeous cinematography, everything is soaked in vivid colours and framed immaculately. Shults manages to perfectly conjoin Waves’ stunning visuals and superb performances to create a fresh, lived-in and deeply affecting portrait of a family in crisis.
Waves is a life-affirming emotional epic that continues to surprise and enthral throughout its runtime. Supported by a quartet of career-best performances, Shults has crafted one of the best films of the year which poignantly captures the joys and pains of life.