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Review: 'Waves' is an emotional gut-punch of a film—and one of the year’s best

A24

A24

Waves takes on a lot in just over two hours—teenage romance, drug abuse, cancer, pregnancy, toxic masculinity, sports culture, the difficulties of parenthood, the black experience in America—yet it never feels shallow, fragmented, or dense. In fact, it’s one of the year’s best films.

A tale told in two parts, Waves explores the strained relationships of a Florida family undone by tragedy. Its structure and tone feel reminiscent of The Place Beyond the Pines, but director Trey Edward Shults brings enough of his own perspective on family matters to make Waves feel fresh. The beginning focuses on Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an 18-year-old wrestling star who’s pushed so hard by his father (Sterling K. Brown) that he’d rather steal the old man’s painkillers than reveal a serious shoulder injury. In the second half, the POV shifts to Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who navigates the pitfalls of high school and her own difficult relationship with their father.

Waves is yet another movie in the A24 stable that shows filmmakers playing with unconventional storytelling devices as well as interesting technical components. Schults leverages lens swaps and mixed aspect ratios to create a moviegoing experience that physically changes in a way few others do. I mentioned in my review of The Lighthouse that while ratio twists have become all the rage in indie filmmaking, they rarely feel motivated. Waves bounces between 1.33, 1.85, and 2.40 framing, yet the shifts serve a clear purpose both in the immediate moment of change and as a mood modifier in the scenes that follow. Jumps between spherical and anamorphic lenses produce similar results. And while every moviegoer may not consciously care about these subtleties, their effect on the vibe is undeniable.

General cinematography takes the same route, as man behind the cam Drew Daniels pulls off the impressive feat of making Waves feel organic even though certain moves blatantly call attention to the craft. Case in point: Waves opens with a car barreling down the Florida highway. Most filmmakers would just put the camera on the dash or in one of the seats, but Shults and Daniels position it at the center console and spin it around for the entire scene. I’m still wondering how exactly they pulled it off. As first shots go, it’s one for the books: an optical standout that relates endless possibility and a sense of impending doom. This movie is beautifully shot; however, its terrible events will likely push that to the back of your mind in the moment.

Beyond visual achievements, Waves functions as a phenomenal character setup and devastating emotional hit. It’s well cast overall, but Harrison Jr. and Brown give knockout efforts. The former will likely get overshadowed due to Brown’s popularity, but for my money, Harrison Jr. gives one of the top five performances of the year. Keep an eye out for this guy; he’s got the right stuff.

This has been a great year for movies—and with High Life,The Lighthouse, Midsommar, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and Uncut Gems, another crazy run for A24—so it will be interesting to see how Waves fares on the awards circuit. The Oscars are meaningless, but when it comes to a humble indie flick with a lot of heart, you can’t help but root for some success. The mechanics of award selections mean tough choices for A24 given their output. Still, it’s not unreasonable to think Waves has best actor and best picture potential.

Waves
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell
Rated: R
Theater: Area theaters, now playing