Waves Review: Schultz and company ready to make waves this awards season
After crafting an unnerving and tense experience with It Comes at Night back in 2017, writer/director Trey Edward Schultz returns with another tense feature, Waves, that delves into family tragedy and the Waves of emotions it creates.
The film is essentially split into two perspectives: one being that of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school student who has a passion for wrestling and a strong relationship with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demine), and the other being Emily (Taylor Russell), Tyler’s shy younger sister. Together, the two live with their dominating, but good-hearted father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and their stepmother Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) in a suburban lifestyle in Miami. While they are at different stages in their lives and are dealing with different things and people, they must navigate the love and tragedy that affects them in their young lives as brewing unspoken emotions threaten to tear the family apart.
With Tyler, you’re basically watching a tragedy begin to unfold as things slowly begin to slip away from him and the vision of an above average future that Ronald has instilled in him to achieve is becoming impossible. Harrison Jr. makes Tyler’s slowly breaking mindset so believable and even for the tragic things he does because of his inability to contain his emotions, you never hate or villainize him. Between the true love he has for his family and Alexis, it’s very easy to care about Tyler even when he does something bad or makes a mistake. Watching Tyler is really like watching someone walk a tightrope and with each small fumble, you can feel yourself getting chills for the fall that’s always looming. His story is literally heartbreaking and Harrison Jr.’s raw and, at times, haunting performance is one of the best in his short, but stellar career.
The real connector between Tyler and Emily’s story is Ronald as he’s probably one of the most complex characters of the entire film. His relationship with Tyler both symbolizes the need for him to be more than just average because of the color of his skin and the dominant masculinity that becomes toxic for Tyler and is why he eventually breaks. Brown is absolutely stunning in Waves as he balances Ronald’s dominating mindset and good-hearted intentions as a father. I think it’s easy to classify Ronald’s parenting as abusive because of what it leads to, but I actually think that that’s too easy. Is he a little hard on Tyler at times and doesn’t give Emily the same amount of attention as him, sure, but like Tyler, I don’t feel that it fully villainizes him – especially when his real emotions about everything pour out within Emily’s story. There’re plenty of moments that show him simply wanting the best for his family and keeping things together after tragedy strikes, but not fully understanding how. It’s a complex performance that only Brown knows how to give and it’s one of the best supporting performances of the year.
Now, with Emily, her story is quite the opposite of Tyler’s as we see her help herself, as well as Ronald and Catherine, rise from the ashes of the tragedy that comes from Tyler’s story. Russell puts in one the most emotionally connective and realistic performances I’ve seen this year and Emily’s rise from the ashes of tragedy is so incredibly satisfying. The relationship she develops with Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s teammates, is so sweet and you constantly hope for the best with them. Hedges also puts in a strong performance, as usual and the awkward and loving attitude he shows as Luke will have an instant connection to anyone’s heart. Where the two are at their strongest and most emotionally vulnerable is in the way they deal with grief, family issues, and their genuine love for one another together and how it eventually helps Emily deal with her own issues. The amount emotion their story evokes makes it a true challenge to hold back tears and perfectly touches on dealing with grief and unresolved issues.
Performances and strong storytelling aren’t the only thing that evokes strong emotion in Waves, though, as Schultz brings some strong technical aspects to the film in order to heighten the experience. The score and music choices from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are fantastic and the way cinematographer Drew Daniels captures Miami is just breathtakingly beautiful. Like It Comes at Night, Schutlz also took part in the editing process alongside Issac Hagy, so it’s no surprise that a reunion between him and Harrison Jr. wasn’t going to be the only familiar things Schultz would come with.
Once again, Schultz plays with the aspect ratio and has some crazy one-shots that don’t exactly work as well this time around. The aspect ratio changes don’t have the same obvious effect as It Comes at Night and it just ends up being a distraction in some of the most crucial moments of the film. With the camera, though, Schultz creates some stunning one-takes that swivel in tight spaces to give viewers a full scope of everything happening and there’s also a scene of Emily and Luke running through sprinklers that’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. He also mirrors shots and framing between Tyler and Emily’s story that really connects them well and shows how intertwined they are even when not with one another.
Waves features the best of what film can offer: stunning direction, a uniquely emotional story, top-tier performances, and incredible creativity on a technical level. There’s no short of accolades that Waves could earn and rightfully deserves. If you’re looking for that kind of film that’s a true hidden gem that will rock you to your core, then you have to see Waves.