Produced by Kevin Turen,
James Wilson, Trey Edward Shults
Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr.,
Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell,
Alexa Demie, Lucas Hedges,
Renée Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.
Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
A24’s Waves – like the studio’s Oscar-winning film Moonlight – is set in Florida, features a predominantly black cast, and has some of the most gorgeous cinematography you will see this year. And it will also likely have you in tears.
But, unlike Moonlight, it relies far too much on melodrama and tired tropes to tell its story, nearly losing the audience’s sympathy in the process.
Thanks to the power of a few scenes, including an emotional father-daughter talk between Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown and Taylor Russell, the movie eventually circles back to redeem itself by the time the credits roll.
The film opens with a deliriously joyful 360-degree shot of teenager Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) driving. The ever-fluid camera dips in and out of the lives of this happy couple, who spend their nights partying, texting, and posting about themselves to social media. (And listening to some excellent music, including Frank Ocean, Tony K, and Kanye West.)
Unfortunately, the path Shults sends them down could not be more clichéd. When events play out exactly as you’d expect after their breakup, it feels like we’re watching a very stylish episode of an ID Channel series about love gone wrong.
Brown is excellent as Tyler’s driven dad Ronald, who is so invested in his son’s wrestling career, he trains with him and attends every meet. When Tyler learns that his sore shoulder is so seriously injured that he should quit wrestling on the spot, he opts not to tell his parents and keep training. After all, he can just keep popping dad’s pain pills from his own sports injury. He’s pushing himself as hard as his father does, if not harder.
There’s a scene where Tyler seems on the verge of telling his dad about his injury, saying, “I have a lot going on.” You wince when, instead of listening, Ronald lectures him on how your responsibilities double when you’re an adult.
When the film switches gears to focus on Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), the shift is jarring. Ultimately, however, it made me wish the entire film had been shot from her perspective. Her character is the most fully rounded and the one we automatically gravitate toward in the chaos.
As she starts dating Luke (Lucas Hedges), the camera spins around them in the same joyous way. Their love story is, luckily, not a tragic one. And the way they help each other deal with their troubled pasts ends up being profoundly moving.
The ripples of that experience seem to translate to Emily’s family, which now appears able to heal. The ray of hope that the film ends on – and the strength of the performances – is (mostly) worth sitting through the overly melodramatic missteps.
The sumptuous night-time cinematography of Drew Daniels, who worked with Shults on previous films Krisha and It Comes a Night, is another enormous selling point.
Rating: 3 out of 5