Film Review: Waves

Teen Drama Burns Off A Lot Of Emotion And A Ton Of Energy

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
The kids are … Well
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After a couple of well-regarded art house efforts (the stunningly observational character study Krisha and the brazenly minimalist horror drama It Comes At Night), young filmmaker Trey Edward Shults makes a grab for mainstream (more or less), Oscar-bait (maybe) cinema with the profoundly felt family drama Waves.

Shults’ story starts out focused in on promising teen athlete Tyler Willamson (Kelvin Harrison Jr., who appeared in
It Comes At Night). Tyler would seem to have it all. He’s a star on his Miami high school wrestling team. He gets decent grades. He’s got a cute girlfriend. And his family lives a comfortable upper-middle class existence. But Tyler is trapped firmly under the thumb of his loving, stable and quietly domineering father Ronald (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown from “This Is Us”).

All parents want their kids to be stronger, smarter, better. But Ron is one of those parents for whom “second place” is a filthy turn of phrase. Winning is everything. Ron pushes his son to excel, living out his own fading dreams of athletic prowess. (Shults also hints at another motivation: that, as an African-American family, the Williamsons must strive “twice as hard” as their successful white neighbors. But the racial issue remains largely unexplored here.)

One day Tyler’s doctor notices early warning signs of a potentially crippling shoulder injury. He insists Tyler lay off the wrestling and get immediate surgery. Terrified of how his father will react, Tyler hides the information from his parents, stealing oxycodone from their medicine cabinet and fighting through the pain. That particular plan of action doesn’t last long, of course. Tyler suffers a career-ending injury on the wrestling mat, and it’s not long at all before his life is spiraling out of control. His drug use spikes, his girlfriend gets pregnant and his anger explodes.

Honestly, it’s tough to work up a lot of sympathy for Tyler, given the swiftness of his transformation from golden child to pathetic monster. Shults’ script finds moments of poignancy and clarity throughout it all, but relies on a lot of melodramatic manipulations to get the plot right where he wants it—which is somewhere between a cautionary “ABC Afterschool Special” and an episode of HBO’s trippy teen drama “Euphoria.”

An awful lot of effort has been put into the film’s look and feel. The impatient camera pushes and pulls, swoops and swirls. The insistent soundtrack intrudes loudly on every moment (as only one by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross can). The montage-style editing nails neon-colored images on viewers’ eyeballs at a rapid-fire pace. Heck, even the cinematography can’t settle on a single aspect ratio, flip-flopping from an expansive 1.85:1 frame to a boxy 1:33 (and several more in between). It’s a bravura effort, overflowing with movement and noise. But it occasionally amounts to sensory overload.

Interestingly enough, a little over halfway through the film, Shults shifts the focus of his attention away from troubled jock Tyler and on to his shy little sister Emily (Taylor Russell, “Lost in Space”). For the rest of the film, we watch as she breaks out of her shell, awkwardly flirts with a nice dork (nice dork Lucas Hedges) and tries to cope with the repercussions (or “waves,” I suppose) of Tyler’ actions on their broken family. This more tenderhearted second half feels like it has more breathing room than the first, possibly because Emily’s story is less predictable than Tyler’s and is in less of a hurry to get where it’s going.

Finally, after 2 hours and 15 minutes’ worth of highly cinematic cinema, we get to our rather graceful denouement. It’s all about families and mistakes and regret and forgiveness—which is expected, of course. But after all the visual, auditory and emotional interference we (and the characters) have been through, it feels well-earned—almost as if we’re emerging from a hot, noisy, stroboscopic and not exactly pleasant freeway tunnel into the bright, cleansing light of day.
Waves is a worthy effort in the end—even if the man behind it might want to expend a little less effort next time around.
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