Synopsis – Traces the journey of a suburban family – led by a well-intentioned but domineering father – as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss.
My Take – While every studio is out there trying to build their own cinematic universe with the characters at their disposal, without any regards to whether they would work or not, or lazily trying to remake/revive/reboot every successful property from the 80s and 90s, A24 as a studio continues to stand apart by their continuing effort to release original content from gifted up and coming directors.
Whilst their films don’t earn much money, the quality of them, beats any Hollywood blockbuster, any day. This film which released in the U.S. back in November is just another great addition in their growing catalogue.
Pairing up for the third time, following his two previous features, 2016’s Krisha and 2017’s horror film It Comes at Night, here, writer/director Trey Edward Shults, once again focuses on the theme of how a family under intense pressure discovers that the seeds of their destruction came from within themselves, despite having ordinary dreams and hopes.
Being his grandest and most ambitious effort yet, the film is an ambitious, impassioned, and honest depiction of the trials and tribulations that resonate through the lives of an American family. It is slice of life cinema that brings us so urgently into human moments at an intimacy I haven’t seen since in recent films. It’s about the weight of one’s personal battles, but also about rediscovering family, love, and some sense of normalcy in a world that can grow tumultuous and overbearing every day.
While on one hand, the film is emotionally bruising and like his previous efforts takes its sweet time to get anywhere, but on the other hand director Shults manages to keep us hooked with the lush beauty of his Florida setting, and the magnetic performance of his actors.
Centering on a Black upper-middle-class family living in Florida, the story follows Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a popular and driven high school wrestler, who has it all. A caring girlfriend in Alexis Lopez (Alexa Demie), who he deeply loves, a thoughtful sister in Emily (Taylor Russell) and an excellent support in his stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
However, his relationship with Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), his domineering father, is somewhat strained as Ronald, himself a former athlete, who was forced to retire due to a knee injury, constantly pushes him to succeed. But when an old wrestling injury comes back to haunt him, his life devolves as he makes one mistake after another, leading to a horrific act of violence that changes all of their lives.
What follows is at times almost unbearably, authentically heart-rending, but director Shultz very carefully crafts the story in a way that feels true to life, while also having levity in times of crisis or grief. This is a sad, sweeping story about the seemingly unbridgeable gap that can open up between parents and their children, along with the desperation that can set in when life doesn’t go according to plan.
Here, director Shultz evokes both the swirling highs and grinding lows his characters are experiencing, from the exhilaration of being young and on top of the world to the brain-melting confusion of angry intoxication, to the shock of a life-altering accident. Thematically, the film looks at the pressure to succeed, particularly in men. Ronald equates masculinity with strength, mocks Catherine’s job, and barely acknowledges Emily.
Instead, he pours all his effort into Tyler, through whom he’s trying to live vicariously, pushing him to be the successful athlete that he himself could have been before injury ended his career. He’s also acutely aware that as an African-American man, things won’t come easy to his son, and genuinely feel that raising Tyler in this manner is the best thing. The problem with all of this is that neither Tyler nor Ronald have a backup plan, so when things start to go wrong, Tyler immediately falls apart.
The film understands that men tend to hog the spotlight and so it’s both pointed and deeply moving when the plot suddenly ruptures and the perspective shifts to Emily, who tells her story in the film’s second half. Where she is left to pick up the pieces after her brother’s actions has torn the family’s unity apart, and it’s during that difficult time that she becomes acquainted with Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s former wrestling teammates and a total goofball.
With Luke helping Emily process her emotions regarding her brother in a number of ways, as the family works itself towards some feeling of normalcy. Moreover, her own journey through her emotional landscape reflects our own, given how much we’ve come to hate Tyler and his action, and through her we’re able to process our feelings on the situation.
One of the best things about the film is how it treats the method of forgiveness, how it doesn’t just happen overnight. There’s a wrenching scene in which Ronald confesses his failings as a father and reaffirms his love for Emily, whom he has too often ignored. He proceeds to recite a few words from the Book of Proverbs, which beautifully encompass the film and its emotional extremes: Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. The film ultimately reveals itself to be about the ability of love to conquer despair, about how life can persist no matter the circumstances, about the importance and restorative power of family.
The route this film takes toward the end will probably not sit well with some viewers, but that aspect is what impacted me the most and took the film from great to incredible. It can be quite upsetting and depressing at times, so if you’re not into that, I would suggest looking for a different film.
On top of the stellar writing and direction, the cinematography by Drew Daniels, who happens to have worked with this director for years, is out of this world. From the way the camera spins to tell a story or frames things perfectly for an aspect ratio change, it just kept me in awe.
In terms of problems, there are a few here. In hindsight, 135 minutes doesn’t seem too long for a film, but the way this story plays out will probably make some audiences impatient. Especially in the second half, where the pace, after the major plot point, drops down to a snail’s pace. There are also a couple of instances when the film feels like it ending, but go on to explore further, with certain bland exposition scenes, which at times push the film close to melodrama.
Nevertheless, the actors make the material work. It goes without saying that Sterling K. Brown has delivered another amazing performance here, so has Kelvin Harrison Jr. who excellently played up the conflict in his character, making them a huge reason why the film works as well as it does. Taylor Russell subtly steals the show, as her character gets a lot to process through in the second hour of the film.
In supporting roles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Alexa Demie, Neal Huff and Lucas Hedges are terrific as well. However, Clifton Collins Jr. doesn’t get much to do in his small role. On the whole, ‘Waves’ is a well-constructed and powerfully immersive experience that is awfully impressive and emotional.
Directed – Trey Edward Shults
Rated – R
Run Time – 135 minutes