Its how life comes at us all…
While it’s a story that has some undeniable pretention to it, Waves is a brilliant deep dive into tragedy and how all consuming it is but its real genius lies in giving us not only the lows of it all, but the highs as well.
Set against the vibrant landscape of South Florida, Waves traces the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family—led by a well-intentioned but domineering father—as they navigate love, forgiveness and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.
While an arc like this story has comes with some unavoidable preconceptions and ideas that get a little telegraphed, Waves is a stunning family drama that peels back layers of issues like toxic masculinity, opiate abuse and so many others, allowing its audience to see an unvarnished and truthful look at grief in the aftermath of a tragedy; which is that it’s as complicated as fuck and there’s never anything close to an easy answer on how to work past it.
There’s nothing in Waves that you could ever call conventional…which is why it all plays with such a familiar and realistic tone throughout. Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults (who full disclosure is a white guy) tackles what on the surface is a story of race with real nuance and subtlety to the point that it reminds us that regardless of the color of anyone’s skin, that grief and tragedy are universal to the human experience.
Going beyond your standard drama with cinematography from Drew Daniels that helps to craft the frenetic energy of adolescence that we see on display in the film, alongside musical beats and a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that is so note perfect it’s actually a little upsetting.
For the first half of this film Shults captures the anxiety of modern youth that KNOWS it can’t live up to the expectations set by the generation that proceeded them, and it’s killing them in more ways than they know. He’s very clearly pushing buttons in this film and while some of it has an air of pretention (which is well intentioned) it also captures an emotional energy that is both brave and a little reckless at the same time which can make for something maddening in how immersive we get with these characters. It’s not a film that pulls its punches and it wants to wear you down emotionally.
That being said, it’s the latter half of the film where we really see the subtle sides of the genius in the film. Spiralling us down the rabbit hole of tragedy is one thing, but in the second half of the film which is truly carried by Canadian actress Taylor Russell (who you may know from Escape Room) we get carried out of the darkness of the tragedy that Kelvin Harrison Jr and his performance as Tyler takes us to. Both are brilliant in their own ways, but Russell as Tyler’s sister Emily has to exist in the aftermath of what has happened and reclaim some semblance of normality to her life. She’s the anchor for her grieving parents who don’t know where to focus their anger at this situation and as Shults navigates this character back into the light of moving, not necessarily past what has happened to her, but in finding a way to make sure that day to day life doesn’t paralyze her in unending pits of grief.
Sterling K Brown is magnificent as the toxically flawed father figure who doesn’t learn the error of his ways soon enough while Renee Elise Goldsberry as the out of place yet loving stepmother who just wishes that Tyler could have talked to her sooner and prays that Emily still will if she needs to while dealing with her own grief.
This is one of those films that we could simply talk about for days because while Waves can’t shake some of its intense flaws of emotionality, it reminds us that in all facets of life that will come are way, there’s never a right or a wrong way to deal with them all and we just have to ride them out as they come at us, no matter the external influences trying to tell us otherwise. Waves is a call to be true to oneself in a world that can get far too focused on the artifice of perception and ambition. You can’t plan life; you simply have to find a way to live it as best as you can.
Waves is open in Toronto now, and goes wide across the country on Dec. 6th