Trey Edwards Shultz’s new film “Waves” grips us hard during its overwhelmingly stylish first half and then moves us a lot during its surprisingly sensitive second half. I must confess that I was quite annoyed and baffled at first, but the movie eventually engaged me more than expected via its quieter emotional scenes, and I came to appreciate how deftly it handles the rocky emotional journey of its main characters from the beginning to the end.
The story mainly revolves around one affluent middle-class African American family living in a suburban neighborhood of Florida. Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) has raised his two children Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Alexa Demie) with his second wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) for many years, and a number of early scenes in the film show how hard Tyler has been pushed by his domineering father. As a self-made man who started his business from the bottom, Ronald believes in hard efforts and strict principles, and Tyler, who has been a prominent member of his high school wrestling team, certainly feels lots of pressure as demanded to do more and more by his father everyday.
Not so surprisingly, Tyler often throws himself into fun and excitement recklessly as shown from the opening part of the film, and he also gets some comfort from his girlfriend. When they are together on a nearby beach, the mood becomes less intense for Tyler, and it looks to him like everything will be fine as long as he keeps trying his best for advancing further with his athletic career.
And then there come two different troubles which throw Tyler into lots of confusion and conflict. During his latest physical examination, it turns out that he has a serious shoulder injury which may end his athletic career forever, and his doctor advises to him that he must have a surgery right now, but he chooses to hide this fact from his coach as well as his father. In addition, he keeps taking painkillers behind his back as usual, and he also comes to drink more often than usual.
Meanwhile, it also turns out that Tyler’s girlfriend has been pregnant for several months. Although she initially agrees to have an abortion as wanted by Tyler, she subsequently comes to change her mind, and that consequently leads to a big quarrel between her and Tyler, who becomes quite upset in front of the possibility of taking the responsibility of his pregnant girlfriend and their baby.
Around that narrative point, the film dials up its level of intensity and suspense, and Shultz, who also edited the film along with Isaac Haby in addition to serving as a director/writer/co-producer, and his crew member pull all the stops as Tyler heads toward the eventual arrival point of his destructive fall. While cinematographer Drew Daniels provides a series of visually bold, stunning moments which are further accentuated by the dramatic changes in screen ratio, the soundtrack often alternates between a number of loud pop songs and the abrasive electronic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the overall result often feels like sheer sensory assault to say the least.
As entering its second half, the movie becomes relatively calmer while observing the devastating ramifications of Tyler’s irreversible act. Filled with guilt and grief, Catherine becomes angry and distant to her husband, and Ronald, who belatedly comes to realize his errors, does not know what to do for himself as well as his family now. At one point, he and Catherine happen to argue on what went wrong for their family, and Catherine bitterly reminds him of how much she hates him for what happened.
Meanwhile, the movie comes to focus more on Emily, who has also struggled with her own grief and guilt but then finds an unexpected source of solace and comfort from a boy named Luke (Lucas Hedges), who was one of Tyler’s teammates. Although their first encounter was not exactly pleasant, they come closer to each other when they later meet again, and we soon get several lyrical moments a la Terrence Malick as they spend some good time together here and there.
Gently letting its main characters rolling along the progress toward healing and forgiveness, the movie knocks us down with a number of poignant scenes filled with understanding and empathy. I particularly like a scene where Ronald reluctantly but honestly admits his regret and sadness, and I also appreciate how the movie sensitively depicts a part associated with Luke’s estranged father, which feels rather contrived at first but turns out to be quite more effective than expected.
The movie is also supported well by its good main cast members. While Kelvin Harrison Jr., who previously collaborated with Shults in “It Comes at Night” (2017), shows another side of his considerable talent as he recently did in “Luce” (2019), Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry are solid in their respective roles, and newcomer Alexa Demie is effortless in her several intimate scenes with Lucas Hedges, who humbly stands besides Demie without overshadowing her at all.
On the whole, “Waves” is tough and difficult to watch at times, but it is another terrific work from Shults, who drew my attention for the first time with his remarkable debut feature film “Krisha” (2015). In short, this is one of better drama films of last year, and I will certainly continue to observe Shults’ advancing filmmaking career with more enthusiasm.