My Verdict |★★★★☆
Beneath the soft-hued, sun-kissed surface of Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is real tautness and long-repressed pain. The indie drama’s vibrancy and visual beauty belies the devastating hairline fractures within the film’s central family: fractures that the director-writer first exposes and then pulls open. A deeply personal film, which draws upon autobiographical details from both Shults and leading actor Kelvin Harrison Jr, the tendency to overbear stylistically is grounded by serious, sensitive performances.
Tyler Williams (Harrison Jr) wants for nothing. Growing up in a successful, middle-class black family, his privileged southern Florida life swirls between study, championship wrestling and a gorgeous girlfriend (Alexa Demie). Driven relentlessly by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) to achieve material and physical excellence (black men like them ‘are not afforded the luxury of being average’ he firmly intones), Tyler’s ‘Instragammable’ life is only inhibited by a nagging pain in his shoulder. By unceasing degrees this seemingly insignificant detail will shatter not his only life, but sister Emily’s (Taylor Russell) as well.
Much like Tyler’s affliction, there is subtle, underlying unease in Shults’ direction and Drew Daniels’ often sublime cinematography. Pirouetting camera movements give as much a sense of a life about to spin off its own axis as a life in carefree flow. A seemingly innocuous family outing to a diner shifts ever so slightly between gentle, mocking humour and cold, piercing judgements.
It’s a deceptive ambience that percolates slowly- ever uncomfortable despite the oh-so-attractive visuals (recalling the serene shoals and softly filmed vistas of Jenkins’ Moonlight), contemporary music tracks (waves of Frank Ocean, Tame Impala and Kanye West) and soporific score from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. However, Shults and Daniels do seem to fall in love with the ‘look’ as they flash up sunbeams into the screen and change aspect-ratios to crudely fit those intense, inescapable moments.
Fortunately, for the most part, this visual style responds effectively to the growing turbulence in Shults’ insightful screenplay (a collaboration born out of ‘mini-therapy sessions’ between the director and lead actor on their different, difficult experiences of growing up). The first half slowly builds in unnerving momentum, inevitably speeding toward a fateful crash for Tyler and his family.
Shults delves into the consequences of denying emotional pain for so long, how this manifests psychosomatically, ripping through the vulnerable emotional foundations of the Williams. Waves rides on the fall-out of traumas unspoken, undealt with, typically pushed aside by men- much like in Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea .
‘Push through’ is Ronald’s constant refrain and Tyler finds any way to do just that. Harrison Jr’s exhilarating but sympathetic performance keeps this believable. He conveys the doubt, vulnerability and anguish beneath the otherwise tensed toughness and unwavering personal drive.
The young actor wrestles against Brown’s domineering performance as his difficult father. While bringing a stern, overbearing presence, Brown also realises Ronald’s thorny complexities. He effectively blurs the lines between severe ‘coach’, cajoling ‘brother’-figure and protective parent. There are undercurrents of the issues surrounding growing into masculinity; black masculinity of a specific social class in particular.
The second half, which centres Emily, feels like an entirely different film- but boldly and interestingly so. Russell’s quiet, cleansing performance grips us in a different way to Harrison’s though is no less compelling. She reminds us powerfully that those who are introverted or pushed the periphery in family life also bear buried anger, resentment and sadness. The searching quality that Russell brings out convincingly- Emily’s unresolved but determined sense to recognise her pain, realise the limits of her forgiveness- is deeply moving.
It’s these affecting performances, more than any visual panache, that really roots the underlying message of Waves: ‘pushing through’ less to ‘talking more’. Despite being a piece of cinema that drowns in visual and emotional layers of denial and despair, this simple, confronting but necessary advice still ripples through and resonates.