Emotionally raw and dazzling, “Waves” whirls and surges straight into your soul

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Emily (Taylor Russell), Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), and Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) in "Waves." / Courtesy of A24 Films.

By Sammie Purcell
BU News Service 

Pro-tip: If you don’t like crying around your friends, see “Waves” alone.

The new film from director Trey Edward Shults is a dizzying, dazzling work of cinema that explores pain and forgiveness in the wake of inconceivable heartbreak. Everything about the film submerges you into its depths, from the technicolor landscape to the gushing direction to the emotionally raw performances of the cast. It will leave your eyes red and your heart tender.

“Waves” centers around an upper-middle-class black family living in Florida. The story is broken up into two parts, divided by an unimaginable tragedy. The first act follows Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school wrestling star dealing with a career-ending shoulder injury and mounting pressure to be a perfect student from his father (Sterling K. Brown). The second act follows Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), as she navigates through grief, new love and forgiveness.

This is Shults’ third film, following 2015’s “Krisha” and 2017’s “It Comes at Night.” All of Shults’s films are semi-autobiographical. “Krisha,” about a tense Thanksgiving reunion, stars members of his real family. He started getting more attention for his horror film “It Comes at Night,” which is based on his relationship with his father and his father’s death. 

While each of his films has benefited from his personal touch, “Waves” is Shults’ most personal film yet. On the surface, this feels strange — Shults is white and the story is an intimate portrait of a black family. This sounds like a controversy waiting to happen, but Shults has been extremely open about how the film organically came to be and how he fit himself into the narrative. 

When asked about the process in interviews, he’s spoken about the active collaboration with lead actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., who also starred in “It Comes At Night.” Shults and Harrison had what Shults called “mini therapy sessions,” during which they talked about their relationships with their parents, high school pressures and more. They found what they had in common and where they differ in experience and worked from there. 

“’Waves’ has been a movie that’s been brewing forever,” Shults said in an interview to the website Birth.Movies.Death. “When I talked to [Harrison] it didn’t have a title, it didn’t have character names. It was just a brother and a sister linked by this tragedy and a family.”

Harrison wanted to play the part of Tyler, and the rest of the cast dropped into place around him. Shults credits Harrison with helping him find the nuance and authenticity the story needed to bring a black family to the screen. Shults said he would share pieces of the script with Harrison, who would then make changes as he felt necessary to portray the events of the movie from his experience as a black man. The fruits of this labor are clearly shown on screen. 

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) in “Waves.” / Courtesy of A24 Films.

The tragedy at the center of the film is specific to this family’s experience, but the emotions that come with that tragedy are universal, able to be felt by anyone. 

Shults lets the film wash over you. He puts you in the shoes of his characters and makes you feel their pain as though it’s your own. In one particularly disorienting wrestling sequence, you feel as though you’ve been pinned down to the mat along with Tyler, and like him, you’re unable to breathe or see — so much so you can almost feel the pain radiating in his shoulder.

During Tyler’s part of the story, Shults’ direction is frenetic as he follows Tyler through his routine. Tyler is constantly on the move — working out with his father, going to wrestling practice, hanging out with his girlfriend Alexis (played excellently by “Euphoria” actress Alexa Demie) — and the camera follows him with hyperactive energy. In another shot, Tyler and Alexis are driving down the highway with the windows down, wind whipping through Alexis’s hair as they sing and dance along to the radio. The camera spins around the car, just as wild and euphoric as its passengers.

By contrast, the parts of the film that focus on his sister Emily (Taylor Russell), are quiet and searching, much like the character herself. Shults uses long, contemplative shots to convey Emily’s struggle to come to terms with herself and the hardship her family’s been put through. The shots of her budding relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges) are more leisurely than the shots of Tyler and Alexis. Their interactions aren’t as passionate and wild, but sweeter and slower, enveloping the audience in a cinematic hug.

Emily (Taylor Russell) in “Waves.” / Courtesy of A24 Films.

When you combine Shults’ immersive style of direction with actors that bare their souls for you to see, it’s impossible to leave unaffected. Harrison plays Tyler with so much complexity, showing the audience the worst and best of him in quick succession. He’s a hard-working kid whose pain and anger are relatable, which makes it that much harder to watch him succumb to his worst impulses. 

Russell, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with, holding her own against emotional powerhouse Sterling K. Brown (“This Is Us”) in a touching scene between father and daughter. Her openness is exquisite, making you want to call up a parent and tell them you love them as soon as you leave the theater.

Each member of the supporting cast also has a chance to shine. Renée Elise Goldsberry is lovely as the stepmother, and Demie and Hedges are wonderful. There isn’t a weak link in the group.   

As the credits roll, the film leaves you pondering about family, forgiveness and the strength it takes to rebuild broken relationships. Come into this film as open hearted as its actors and you’ll have a truly transcendent experience — letting your feelings wash over you like waves. 

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