***½ (out of ****)
About halfway through Waves, there is a fundamental, paradigmatic shift in the film’s priorities and focus that is, in retrospect, kind of jarring. The story, written by director Trey Edward Shults in his continued exploration of the depth and breadth of what means to be a family, appears to be about one thing at first. Through a series of entirely avoidable and almost overwhelmingly melodramatic events, that shift in perspective favors a character who, until that point, had existed partly in the background. Shults’s command of introspection, almost in spite of a great deal of energy in how he tells and shows us this story, ensures that he doesn’t lose us in the process of making that shift.
At first, then, this is the story of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who lives in sun-dappled South Florida with his parents Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), as he navigates life as a young, black man in a world, as his father has taught him, that expects more out of him than it would a young, white man of a similar age in a similar landscape. Tyler seems to have nearly everything together, but then he receives two pieces of news that alter his comfortable vision of the world around him. These pieces of news are especially unwelcome because of the tense, borderline-toxic relationship between the young man and his stern dad.
First, it seems the arm that he favors in wrestling matches is going to be unusable within a few months if he doesn’t receive immediate medical attention, preferably (to the doctor, anyway, and not him) through reparative surgery. Tyler doesn’t tell his parents or sister this news, though, which says a lot about the dynamic between all of them. Emily may not be able to keep the information from her father, to whom she is closer than Catharine (who, we learn over the course of this story, is the kids’ stepmother, having taken over raising them from a mother who died of a drug overdose). Ronald would fly off the handle, as he expects nothing less than perfection from his son.
Second, his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) announces she is pregnant, and despite an apparently shared desire to end that pregnancy, she changes her mind. For Tyler, who seems to take on his father’s controlling behavior, fatherhood is simply not part of his plan right now. The weight of these two events is far too much for Tyler, who develops an addiction to his father’s painkillers and becomes a bit too obsessive about Alexis’ whereabouts when their relationship takes a sudden and decisive nosedive. So far, everything here might seem overtly melodramatic, and it most definitely is, especially because of the method of Shults’s treatment.
This is most apparent in the sonic and aesthetic qualities of the production, which uses music as a tool, not only for the backdrop of the story (originally conceived by Shults as an actual musical, by the way, until another route was decided on), but as a tool to push the plot forward. Tracks like Radiohead’s “True Love Waits,” Amy Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game,” Kanye West’s “I Am a God” (in a particularly tense scene that smartly pairs the track’s staccato stylings with the tension-building of Shults and Isaac Hagy’s restless editorial energy), and many, many others are used in a way that phenomenally complements the melodrama developing onscreen.
Then, the shift occurs, as the fates of two characters are sealed in very different but equally permanent ways, leaving everyone else reeling and grasping at some form of hope for the future. Wisely, that main thread is pushed to the background, as Shults shifts focus toward perhaps the most sympathetic character here: Emily, whose story this sneakily ends up being at the end of it all, meets Luke (Lucas Hedges), falls head over heels, and winds up being able to accompany the young man on the most important road trip of his life – to reconcile with his dying father – and hers, in that it connects Emily to the very idea of family after her own has been shattered.
The performances here – from Harrison as a young man with as much promise as he does anger, from Brown as a stern father who believes love is accomplished through leading by dominance, from Goldsberry as the stepmother trying to make her own mark on her children, from Hedges as a likable but heartsore young man faced with a difficult challenge – are exquisite, but none rises to the level of Russell, who isn’t a newcomer to acting so much as she is receiving her breakthrough with this role and gives a performance of startling gentleness. The narrative is equally divided between Tyler, in the wild first half, and Emily, in the affecting second, and while that divide is jarringly exact, Waves is still an expert example of channeling melodramatic storytelling into a thrilling and often visceral package.
(Review by Joel Copling)