Producers: James Wilson, Kevin Turen and Trey Edward Shults Director: Trey Edward Shults Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renee Elise Goldsberry and Clifton Collins Jr. Distributor: A24 Films
If you strip away the technical bravado of Trey Edward Shults’s “Waves,” what’s left is a diptych of interconnected after-school specials about bad choices and the difficulty of overcoming the aftermath of tragedy. The film is ambitious, virtuosic and intermittently wrenching, but in the end the sense of calculation undermines its impact.
The first half of the film centers on Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a star wrestler at his South Florida high school who has his eye on a state championship and a college scholarship. He’s constantly pressured by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), the burly, self-confident owner of a construction firm, to build up his strength and outperform everyone else on the squad—he emphasizes that as African-Americans, they have to work harder and be better just to survive, let alone win. They live in an opulent suburban home along with Ronald’s wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a doctor, and Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell).
Tyler also has a girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), with whom he’s often out partying. As presented by Shults, cinematographer Drew Daniels and editor Isaac Hagy (working with Shults in that capacity), Tyler’s life is a whirlwind of frenetic activity both at the gym and at home, but especially when he’s out with Alexis and their friends, doing booze and drugs. Those scenes are shot in a dizzying wash of kinetic camera movement and lurid colors, with changes in screen formatting (a device becoming more and more common) added to the mix as the film progresses.
Tyler is a golden boy, in many respects not unlike the title character of “Luce” that Harrison played earlier this year, but unlike that young man, he cannot control his emotions (except when stifling them in his father’s presence), and his reckless sense of invulnerability suffers a sudden double blow. A serious shoulder injury imperils his wrestling plans, and rather than follow the doctor’s advice to abandon the sport he plies himself with pain pills to get by, which only makes things worse. At the same time Alexis announces that she might be pregnant, and when she’s proven right, an argument about what to do causes a rift between them that ultimately takes a tragic turn. Tyler’s life, and his father’s hopes for him, are destroyed.
At this point “Waves” turns sharply, in both substance and form. Now Emily takes center stage, a shy girl who must deal with the impact of her brother’s actions. Reserved and isolated on campus, she’s befriended by Luke (Lucas Hedges), a sweetly awkward classmate who must cope with a crisis of his own—how to deal with the terminal illness of his estranged father. Emily assists him in coming to terms with that, just as he aids her in overcoming the emotional stasis into which her family’s misfortune has cast her.
Just as the trajectory of Emily’s story reverses the downward spiral of Tyler’s, her experience is told in contrasting style, with luminous light and a quiet rhythm replacing the blazing colors and whiplash energy of his. The result is no less ostentatiously artistic, but in an entirely different visual mode, and it’s impressive that Shults and his cohorts are able to pull it off so skillfully, though of course it’s impossible to keep the seams from showing (not that they’re trying to). The music score by Trevor Reznor and Atticus Ross—accompanied by carefully-chosen pop cuts—shows a similar degree of sensitivity to the altered mood.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with Harrison and Brown exemplifying, each in his individual way, the effects of a testosterone-fueled vision of what masculinity is, and Russell and Hedges expertly representing the softer but more resilient side of humanity; Goldsberry is a formidable presence as Ronald’s strong, supportive spouse, and Demie a poignant one as a girl torn by the conflicting demands on her.
One has to admire Shults for the ambition of “Waves,” which seeks to avoid oversimplification of cause-and-effect and, as the title suggests, to dramatize more subtly the ripples created by an individual’s decisions and actions and their inevitable impact on the lives of others—particularly those who are closest to him. (Or, to misquote Tolstoy, show how each dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.) His film comes close to achieving that goal, but ultimately its contrivances and proclivity to show off undercut its considerable virtues.