Waves - Brutal But Brilliant Dramatic Filmmaking!

Waves is directed by Trey Edward Shults. It stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renee Elise Goldsberry, and Sterling K. Brown. The film features an original musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Tyler is a popular high school wrestler with a beautiful girlfriend. However, injuries related to his athletic pursuits and drama with his girlfriend lead him to a life of abusing drugs and alcohol, culminating in disastrous consequences and shattering his family. In the aftermath, Tyler’s sister Emily must learn to move on with her life, coping with disillusioned parents who can no longer communicate, as well as meeting an awkward but kind-hearted teen with whom she forges a relationship.

Waves is a well-made film but a brutal, hard-hitting one. Subjects like teen pregnancy, toxic masculinity, substance abuse, and marital strife are nothing new, but Waves gives us one of the most powerful and impactful looks at these subjects in years. The film is one that knows its subject matter, not shying away from the consequences of the actions of its characters, not to mention how things may not be as black and white as they initially seem. It’s a tearjerker at times, but becomes all the more powerful and relevant as it unravels. It most definitely hits close to home, even if a few elements don’t quite work.

The character of Tyler, portrayed here Kelvin Harrison, Jr., is handled very well, showing us the rise and the fall of someone with all the potential in the world. But personal conflicts within and around him, with his family and his girlfriend alike, culminate in a tragic outcome for which the consequences are all too real. While Tyler’s eventual actions are unforgivable (no spoilers here), the character still manages to come off as at least somewhat sympathetic throughout his journey. As the movie further unfolds, we see the reasoning for his actions isn’t as simple as it initially seems. Waves succeeds in these regards as it’s a multi-layered film, and the portrayals here and those around our young fallen hero speak loudly and effectively.

While the movie largely revolves around Tyler’s actions and fall, the true standout of the movie for this cinephile is Taylor Russell as his sister Emily. This beautiful young lady is vulnerable and innocent, yet curious about her future and the world around her as she struggles to move on and live in the face of tragedy and its aftermath. Seeing her story unfold is the true highlight here, and I absolutely hope to see Russell in future films. She owns every scene she’s in, whether she’s trying or not.

The remainder of the cast is similarly impressive, including Sterling K. Brown as Tyler and Emily’s tough-driving father, and Alexa Demie as Tyler’s girlfriend. No one is miscast, and I truly believe it’s a movie sure to be getting some buzz for its performances come Oscar season. Odds are you’ve seen plenty of these actors in other films/TV series/etc. of recent years, but here they all get a chance to show off their full dramatic range. A welcome addition to the cast is Lucas Hedges as an awkward boy who befriends and falls for Emily. This guy seems to pop up in film after film these days. But if he can keep turning in good performances like these, I’m totally fine with that!

The cinematography shows off the film’s Florida settings beautifully, from coastlines and expanses of highway to school gyms and parties. The film, oddly enough, incorporates alternating aspect ratios, depending upon what each scene and plot element requires. It’s a strange gimmick, and I’m honestly a bit torn as to how I feel about it, but I’ll give the crew credit for trying something different.

What’s truly surprising about Waves is how it sheds light on problems with its unflinching tone. There are brutal actions here and consequences to boot, and it shows throughout the movie. They’re not issues unique to this film by any means, but seeing how they can all culminate to result in a tragedy is handled exceptionally well. It won’t be a film for everyone on account of the subject matter and the hard-hitting nature of it all, but audiences will be impressed by what they see. Just be warned; the movie absolutely earns its R rating, and it's definitely not for younger or more sensitive viewers.

To be fair, not every single thing about the film works. There’s one or two subplots too many, including one which likely could have been excised entirely. The running time of over two hours is also a bit excessive. About 10-15 minutes worth of editing could have given the film a more concise running time with no real loss of substance. A more concrete and less ambiguous finale would have been nice as well, but these things don't derail the film.

Despite very minor flaws, Waves is a fantastic film which is relatable. It hits hard, and it’ll most definitely hit close to home, capturing both darker and more uplifting sides to life for teens in the modern world and their families. Very highly recommended.

Rating: Three-and-a-half stars out of four.

DISCLAIMER: All images in this review are the property of their respective holders, including A24, Guy Grand Productions, and JW Films. For promotional use only. All rights reserved.

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