Waves is a domestic drama in which the bad choices and awful actions of star athlete Tyler ripple out to his family after he's brought down to his knees. That is the first half. The second half is from the point of view of Emily, Tyler's sister, who grapples with guilt and hatred over what Tyler did and if she can find a way to forgive him. The film stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Alexa Demie, and Lucas Hedges. It is written and directed by Trey Edward Shults.
Trey Edward Shults is well versed in cinematic language. He uses sound, color, visuals, and even aspect ratio to convey several difficult to place moods. Everything is so high definition now, I couldn't tell, but it looked like he went from digital photography to film photography at one point as well. He and cinematographer, Drew Daniels, used every trick in the book. It has an excellent effect on the narrative, but it also had an effect of dizzying me to the brink of nausea at certain points. I needed to blink or I felt I was going to lose my equilibrium.
Those techniques are not necessarily a detriment to the film or the story the film is conveying. It even intensifies the drama as we watch Tyler's grand fall from grace. The colors of his euphoria melding and blending with the colors of his anger, fear and sadness to create a wonderful tapestry of sound and movement, of frenetic, unflinching and unwavering motion toward the inevitable fate. As soon as that climax hits, we smash cut into something completely new.
The color of Emily's half of the story begins as dull and unsaturated. Here Florida is the Florida of real life where the tropical colors and the sunshine are a facade of a life that's becoming more challenging. Even the dialogue in these scenes is different. It's clumsier, natural, almost unwritten, like we're experiencing it as Emily would. Her relationship with Luke also feels that way, clumsy, unintentional, naturalistic.
In this film in two parts, Shults gives us two different perspectives and it's not always well executed. Many of the motivations are muddy and confusing. There are attempts to tell us in visual language what the characters feel, but as it happens, it feels like it happens above our heads. I felt as if I needed more from the storytelling that I wasn't getting. On the other side of that coin, I felt like the narrative dragged, like it took too long to get to a catharsis we didn't truly understand until the characters articulated it in those moments of clarity.
Yet, what is clear to me is that this cast pulls off the grand emotional weight of this film with great skill. Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry are perfection as parents often at odds, but united in wanting better for their children. Kelvin Harrison Jr is a dynamite talent and an excellent lead. Though, I think the MVP is Taylor Russell, who carries the last half of the film. She opens up Emily as a character both emotionally and rationally, rebuilding her self after the tragedy. It's a thoughtful, charismatic turn that's often brighter than her costars.
I didn't love every minute of Waves, but I really like that Shults is trying something a little avant garde within the space of the family drama. He's breathing a life into it that has been sucked out by overwrought narratives where the characters are just caricatures of who people really are. I look forward to Shults' future work and I hope you give this film a chance as we need to make room for films like this among the loud, blaring, intellectual property that is constantly bombarding us.