This emotional typhoon unleashed in Waves is the work of Trey Edward Shults, 31, the Texas-born writer-director marked as a talent to watch thanks to his first two features: the blistering family melodrama/portrait of an addict Krisha (2014) and the blistering family melodrama/psychological horror movie It Comes at Night (2017). The visual styling and deliberate pacing of his work have brought not always favorable (or fair) comparisons to his mentor Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, Song to Song). But this is a young filmmaker who goes his own way, pouring himself so fully into his work that you can’t write it off as imitation.
Waves, Shults’ most personal film to date, is once again focused on blood relations as a source of comfort and chaos specifically, the Williams, an African-American family living in South Florida (the same territory explored by Barry Jenkins in his Oscar-winning Moonlight). Tyler, a high-school wrestling star, is played with bracing brilliance by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., so good in the title role in this year’s controversial indie drama Luce that you’d think he couldn’t match it. His hair bleached blond in defiance, this young man seems to have everything: a shot at the state championships, a college scholarship, and a hot girlfriend in Alexis (Euphoria‘s Alexa Demie). But his father Ronald (the great Sterling K. Brown) challenges him at every turn (“We are not afforded the luxury of being average”), resorting to arm-wrestling if he can’t win a verbal argument. The scenes between these two suggest love tinged with a darkness that resists brightening even at the urging of Tyler’s compassionate stepmom Catherine (Hamilton Tony winner Renée Elise Goldsberry). The tension is palpable as the teenager begins to slowly spiral out of control, for reasons only partly connected to the prescription meds he’s abusing.
It’s something of a relief when the movie pivots at the halfway point and switches its attention to Tyler’s kid sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who is too reticent to let her feelings out in torrents. Still, the way the camera lingers on the young woman’s as she holds her face outside the window of a moving car suggests the need to clear the pain throbbing in her head. (The shot is typical of the way that cinematographer Drew Daniels captures the whirlwind of life caught on the fly — and his swirling camerawork offers the visual equivalent of lives out of balance.) One moment Emily is reveling in her hookup with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a white teammate of Tyler’s; in the next, disturbing circumstances involving her brother push her out of her comfort zone, forcing her to grow up fast. This month, Russell will be honored by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival with the Virtuoso Award. Watch her performance here and you can see why. She’s a phenomenal talent who digs so deep into her character you can feel her nerve endings.
You could argue that the white Schults can hardly claim to know the Williams’ world from the inside. Yet Waves draws you into its tidal flow, focusing on four characters whose stories the filmmaker tells through sensory, nonlinear moments, all of them dipping between joy and tragedy. A techno score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor includes songs from Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Radiohead in the mix and mirrors the tumultuous passions that spill out on screen. Still, even in the face of grievous misfortune, the characters created by Schults exude a tenderness that allows this achingly intimate drama to move past sorrow and hit you like a shot in the heart.