Review by Sean Boelman
The newest film from acclaimed writer-director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night, Krisha), Waves is a searing portrait of family amidst that plague today’s youth. One of the most brutally earnest movies of the year, if not the entire decade, this film certainly isn’t for everyone, but it is a truly visceral experience that will stick with viewers long after the credits roll.
The film follows a suburban family living in south Florida as they deal with the issues they are presented by society and try to stay together after being stricken by tragedy. Shults presents this story in a way that starts out feeling like a slice-of-life drama and morphs into something very different and much more challenging. The result is a movie that feels far more realistic than the traditional coming-of-age film.
One of the most interesting things about this movie is that there is a drastic shift in tone and pace around the halfway mark. Although it is difficult to describe this change without spoiling its merit, this makes the film resonate even more. Ultimately, the first half of the movie is stronger than the second, but not by much, and they complement each other extremely well.
This film deals with some tough subject matter, but the themes which it addresses are extremely timely. Shults approaches his characters with a unique humanity, allowing the story to feel even more universal. In other hands, the characters, particularly the protagonist, would have been handled with less nuance and treated in a more didactic way. Instead, Shults allows the characters to speak for themselves.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is having one hell of a year, and between this and Luce, he has proven himself to be one of the most talented actors working today. He brings so much vulnerability to his leading role, particularly as the character’s life begins to crumble, that viewers won’t be able to help but sympathize with the character. The supporting cast, including Sterling K. Brown and Alexa Demie, is also wonderful, each performer getting their chance to shine in the spotlight.
In many ways, this movie is absolutely soul-crushing, but that is exactly what Shults seems to be trying to do. Audiences won’t be leaving the theater feeling warm and fuzzy about the way that society treated this family, but there is still plenty of hope to be found in this narrative about the value of family and love. Even though it is a difficult watch, it is a rewarding and cathartic one all the same.
On a technical level, this is perhaps Shults’s most ambitious film yet, with visuals that are absolutely stunning. The cinematography is phenomenal, especially in the first half, which features some gorgeous 360º shots. Additionally, the music, both the soundtrack and the score by Trent Renzor and Atticus Ross, is effectively a character in the movie in and of itself because it is so brilliant.
Waves is the type of film that seems destined to polarize audiences, but it is also entirely unforgettable. Thanks to writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s personal approach to the story and experimentation with the narrative structure and visuals, this stands out as one of the year’s most unique cinematic experiences.
Waves is now playing in theaters.