Waves Kelvin Harrison Alexa Demie

Year: 2019
Director(s): Trey Edward Shults
Writer(s): Trey Edward Shults
Region of Origin: USA
Rating: R
Color, 135 mins

Synopsis: Traces the journey of a suburban family – led by a well-intentioned but domineering father – as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss. (Source)

What is life but a flood of experiences that are impossible to comprehend as they happen to us? This is, on surface, one of the ideas that unifies Trey Edward Shults’ tumultuous Waves. His latest is bold exploration of the internal struggles within an African American middle-class family. Shults harnesses the ephemeral nature of life itself, and how each rippling choice can transform into an uncontrollable tide. It’s absolutely a film that makes us feel, eschewing easy conventions for something more searing. At the heart of it all, soulful performances from Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell hit hard and fast. Though it doesn’t all come together perfectly, it’s nevertheless and big swing that demands to be seen. 

Set in southern Florida, Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a headstrong high school senior looking to leave his mark. He spreads himself thin, rigorously training for the school’s wrestling team, spending time with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and trying to keep up with the expectations of his parents. When all of these highly demanding responsibilities begin to collide, Tyler silently crumbles. After unexpected news from Alexis and a brutal injury, Tyler quickly loses control of everything he’s tried to balance. It sends him and his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) on a collision course with fate, testing the bounds of his tightly knit family. 

With its pulse on the bigger picture, Shults’ latest can’t be reduced to a single BIG idea. He’s captured nothing less than the contrasting opposites that make up our messy lives. The first half of the film is chaotic, restless, and a constantly transforming collage of masculine angst, toxicity and confusion. After an utterly devastating development, Shults shifts into a new perspective, one that takes his story bigger and into more sobering territory. It’s in this unexpected back half that strives to understand more than what’s merely seen or said. A more defined grace appears, never belittling what came before, but only being as tremendous because of the wounds that are healing and reconciliation taking place. Taking trauma and viewing it alongside awakening and forgiveness, the film takes on something much deeper and inescapable. This is the cinema of loss, regret, guilt, shame but ultimately love and grace. It can be seen as cautionary tale, but also a definite plea for empathy and understanding. 

Waves review Taylor Russell

Shults’ evocative tone would be nothing without his cast, who lay down its humanity. Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Tyler is a freight train of expression and disparate qualities. He’s constantly on the verge of exploding, conveying the gamut of human experience and carrying the film’s honesty. On the other side of the coin, Taylor Russell serves as an incredible contrast. She’s more reserved yet every bit as monumental, connecting the story’s ideas with sincerity. Russell is the film’s quiet strength and its not-so-secret weapon. Filling out the world between these two, Alexa Demie and Lucas Hedges add warmth to the characters they support. Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry are show stopping as Tyler and Emily’s parents, giving the dense film even more weight and urgency. 

Waves is intimate yet overwhelmingly huge. It focuses as much on what we can see, as well as what transpires within the fringes of an evolving canvas. As a film that captures how our lives are much bigger than we can ever understand, Shults latest is truly special. It’s a raw portrait of choice, consequence and legacy, exploring internal pressure points and what happen when these erupt and heal over time. In rare form, Shults’ latest feels bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s a fleeting portrait of life that seeps into our very being and is gone all too soon.