"Waves" (2019)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown and Taylor Russell
‘A Powerful Family Drama’

Family tragedy is a sensitive subject that is rarely depicted in films. Hollywood has long held a tradition of ignoring the stories of mourning families. It is not easy to create an authentic cinematic portrait of a grieving family. It’s a formidable task that requires filmmakers to confront heavy subject matter. Then, there’s the challenge of attracting interested viewers. Due to their somber themes, these films do not appeal towards mainstream audiences. After all, most movie-goers do not want to leave the Cinema feeling depressed. For these reasons, it is rare to come across realistic portrayals of family tragedy on the big-screen.

In this regard, Trey Edward Shults’ latest film “Waves” is like a breath of fresh air. Intense, mesmerizing and deeply moving, it offers a poignant portrait of a family tragedy. With his third feature, writer/director Trey Edward Shults has crafted a beautiful film about an African-American family coping with loss. Packed with gorgeous cinematography, innovative storytelling and powerful performances from the cast, it is an incredibly effective family drama. Although “Waves” is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it is not a flawless film. It suffers from a slow pace that tests the viewer’s patience. Nonetheless, it offers heartwarming entertainment that will satisfy fans of art house Cinema.

Set in South Florida, “Waves” tells the story of a suburban African-American family with big dreams. Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars in the lead role as Tyler Williams, an angst-ridden teenager that is pressured by his parents to succeed. Tyler seems to have everything he needs: a spot on the wrestling team, a loving girlfriend and a supportive family led by a domineering father (Sterling K. Brown). However, Tyler’s life forever changes when he encounters an unexpected tragedy. As Tyler grows self-destructive, his relationship with his family begins to fall apart.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults is familiar with themes of family tragedy. Ever since he gained worldwide recognition with “Krisha” in 2015, Shults has proven to be a fantastic filmmaker. His directorial debut “Krisha” was lauded for its authentic depiction of a woman reconciling with her estranged family. With “Waves”, however,” Shults has crafted his first black family drama. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to humanize the lives of a dysfunctional African-American family, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using captivating cinematography, Shults draws viewers into the lives of an upper-class black family. From intimate close-ups to dizzying panning shots, the cinematography immerses viewers in the film’s setting. Working alongside cinematographer Drew Daniels, Shults creates a stunning film in which each frame is breathtaking to behold. Shults excels at immersing viewers in the world of a grieving family, and his latest feature is worth watching on the big-screen for this reason alone.

If themes of family trauma do not attract you to the theater, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see “Waves”. The film is extremely well-made, and features the most impressive technical elements you’ll ever see in a family drama. The aspect ratios, sounds and musical score are all carefully chosen, combining to create an unforgettable movie-going experience. Shults proves to be an expert at choosing the aspect ratios for his films. Shults’ decision to switch aspect ratios halfway through the film is risky, but it works tremendously. For instance, shifting aspect ratios emphasize the emotional states of characters. The 1.85 ratio places viewers into the stressful mindset of Tyler, while the smaller 1.33 ratio establishes Emily’s grieving state. Moreover, the musical score is also worth praising. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ electronic score is highly effective. It gives the film a tense and unsettling atmosphere. Through astonishing technical elements, Shults keeps viewers engrossed in the lives of two siblings.

Another admirable aspect of “Waves” that merits attention is the screenplay. Shults’ screenplay is spectacular, and arguably the main highlight of the movie. Filled with fascinating characters, timely themes and split narrative storytelling, the script elevates the movie to another level. Shults’ greatest strength as a screenwriter is his ability to subvert the expectations of viewers by splitting the narrative into two halves. In Hollywood, most movies follow a formulaic three-act structure with a beginning, middle and end. This often leaves room for no surprises and detracts from the quality of the movie-going experience. Thankfully, though, that is definitely not the case with “Waves”. Using a novel two-act structure, Shults crafts a film that is utterly unpredictable. Split narrative storytelling is a tricky technique to employ in a family drama, but it works immensely in this movie. Through an audacious screenplay, Shults keeps viewers immersed in the world of a dysfunctional family.

It is hard to not praise the powerful performances from the cast. In an exceptional ensemble, every star gets the chance to shine and leave a lasting impression.


Kelvin Harrison Jr. delivers a star-making performance as Tyler Williams. In his first ever leading role, Harrison Jr. proves to be movie-star with a knack for playing troubled teens. It is not easy to get into the mindset of a stressed teenager that is struggling under the weight of parental expectations. It’s an emotionally draining role that puts the actor through the wringer. However, Harrison Jr. pulls it off effortlessly. With riveting expressions, he conveys the angst, frustration and resentment of an adolescent that is under extreme pressure. It’s a phenomenal performance from one of the most promising black actors working today.

Taylor Russell is terrific in the role of a reclusive teenager that is coping with a tragic loss. While Harrison Jr. gets the showier role, Russell is also remarkable and worthy of awards recognition. As Emily, she showcases a knack for conveying strong emotions with minimal dialogue. Whether she is mourning the loss of her sibling or flirting with her boyfriend, she skillfully uses her expressions to convey emotions. It’s a breakthrough performance that proves that the actress has a bright future in the industry.

Although “Waves” is undeniably an unforgettable family drama, ultimately it is not a flawless film. If there’s a minor drawback to the movie, it suffers from a slow pace. Assisted by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ energetic score, Trey Edward Shults keeps the film moving at an engrossing pace during the first hour. However, once the film enters its melodramatic second-half, it starts to lose steam and test the viewer’s patience. Shults’ decision to split the film’s narrative into two halves is bold and innovative, but it doesn’t entirely work. It drags down the pacing, and detracts from the entertainment-value of the movie. Due to its slow pacing, “Waves” is one of those movies that may not appeal towards mainstream audiences.

Nevertheless, fans of Trey Edward Shults’ previous films will definitely enjoy “Waves” and so will movie-goers seeking spellbinding entertainment. An accomplished piece of filmmaking, it proves that stories of family tragedy are worthy of cinematic treatment. At a time when family trauma is rarely depicted in films, it’s a stirring reminder of the power of Cinema as a healing art form.


4/5 stars

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