Some days I feel invincible. As a film critic, I spend my mornings watching movies and my afternoon interviewing movie stars, and life is good. I find meaning in what I do, I have people in my life that love me, and I cherish them dearly.
Other days when my world turns cold and grey, getting out of bed becomes a test of will. In these moments, my sense of meaning fades away. And no matter how many people send their love my way, I’m incapable of feeling it.
But that’s life. Well, at least that’s mine, as someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety since childhood. But even as I wade through depression’s murky waters, I hold onto one truth: the only constant in life is change. And that’s why the harrowing family drama in Waves left me bleary-eyed and raw.
Waves, the exhilarating third feature film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults broadcasts on cinema’s most visceral frequency, resulting in a wrenching story that compresses the breadth of life’s highs and lows into a profound moviegoing experience.
Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school senior who seems to have it all together. He’s devilishly handsome, dating a popular cheerleader (Alexa Demie), and has a wrestling scholarship lined up for college. Tyler comes from an upper-middle-class family in the Miami suburbs, where he lives with his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and sister Emily (Taylor Russell). They have a large house, drive nice cars, and attend church as a family. But there’s trouble at home, although you wouldn’t know it from Tyler’s steady stream of Instagram posts.
Ronald pushes his son too hard, because as a young black man, Tyler can’t afford to be mediocre. Their relationship boils down to wrestling boot camps, and stern lectures, and all the pressure causes Tyler to buckle, physically and emotionally. When a nagging injury threatens Tyler’s wrestling season, he keeps the news a secret. But there is only so much his damaged body can take, and the teen’s promising life starts unravelling. To reveal any more would spoil Waves’ devastating emotional journey.
Waves spends its runtime exploring many themes: intimacy, masculinity, love, forgiveness, and healing, to name a few. Shults throws a lot of different ideas into the mix, and the beauty Waves is that he somehow doesn’t bite off more than he can chew. It’s a film that overwhelms you with ideas and sensations before pulling back and exposing your deepest feelings like a raw nerve.
Few films can match how Waves taxes your senses. This film blitzes you with a deluge of flashy camera movements, fast editing, and bass-heavy rap music. At times the experience feels like stumbling into someone’s Red Bull and cocaine-fuelled fever dream. Which is precisely the point.
Shults deftly applies the tools of cinematic language to recreate the thrill of being young. The frenetic edits, shifting aspect ratios, and soul-rattling diegetic music (from Kendrick Lamar, A$ap Rocky, and Kanye West) is almost too much to process. Speaking of bold rappers, Shults jam-packs his movie with hip-hop music, and Waves has some of the best beat drops I’ve ever heard (outside of a Scorsese movie). The moment when Kanye West’s I Am A God kicks in is one of the most electrifying sequences I’ve watched in some time. If that weren’t enough, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ unnerving original score takes the tension to a whole other level.
Cinematographer Drew Daniels has worked on all three of Shults’ movies, and their artistic cohesion comes through loud and clear. Waves begins with an intricate 360 degree shot, where the camera twirls around and around inside Tyler’s SUV. There are easier ways to block scenes, but Daniels and Shults prefer to go with the kind of intricate (and time-consuming) setups that give DPs ulcers. It’s all in service of the story, though, and in Waves, the dynamic camerawork and throbbing music are practically characters.
This flashy filmmaking means nothing if you’re not invested in the actual characters, and this is where Waves shines brightest. Harrison Jr. draws you into the film’s world, but it’s Brown and Russell who anchor the film, and ultimately, imbue it with heart. Harrison Jr. has the showiest role; he goes from the American dream to America’s nightmare during the first half of the story. This movie doesn’t work if viewers can’t empathize with Tyler as he makes a string of poor decisions.
Russell is a revelation as Tyler’s younger – and often ignored – sister Emily, a perfect counterpoint to Tyler and Ronald’s testosterone-fuelled angst. Tyler and Ronald only connect when they’re sweaty, shirtless, and grunting through their workouts. Emily doesn’t receive the same attention from her family – it seems like the only one who spends time with Emily is her cat. But Russell finds ways to project her character’s gentle spirit while saying little. So, when the film pivots and the spotlight shifts to Emily, Russell takes us on an inspiring (and believable) emotional transformation.
Brown is one of the finest actors working today. He plays Ronald as a scolding authority figure who doesn’t know how to connect with his son. Ronald doesn’t realize the damage he’s inflicting on his children, but he’s inflicting it on them, nonetheless. Whereas a lesser actor would come off as a one-dimensional tyrant, Brown makes his character flawed, but relatable. He does so by grounding his performance in a place of love.
As harsh as Ronald may be, he’s well-meaning, and it’s up to Brown to make us understand this distinction. Ronald is the type of man who spent his life wearing his masculinity like a suit of armour as a way of avoiding intimacy. For Ronald, behaving like a drill sergeant is more comfortable than opening up to his son. But now, Ronald finds that protective armour stifling, and breaking free of these restraints is a tremendous challenge. When Brown finally has his Oscar-reel moment and delivers a heart-breaking speech near the end of the movie, it’s intensely cathartic. Get ready to reach for all the tissues.
Movies this audacious don’t come around every day. Shults’ riveting family melodrama thrilled me, challenged me, and rocked my soul. Waves distills life’s punishing and purifying cadence into a 135-minute movie. Shults serves up a stark reminder that your best days and worst days are never further than a heartbeat away. Sometimes you ride the wave. Sometimes it hits you like a brick wall. The only sure thing is that the waves keep on coming.
Waves opens in theatres across Canada on December 06, 2019.