You would be forgiven for thinking that Uncut Gems would be the only January release to feel like the film equivalent of a tension headache but Trey Edward Shults’ Waves thanks to an opening hour that proves to be unrelenting and foreboding. If it wasn’t for the final hour where it calms but never stops, this family drama would be truly damaging. However thanks to some quietly heartfelt moments, some clever camera work and some dazzling colours, Waves is a powerful drama about a family collapsing and rebuilding while reconciling guilt of the past with the possibility of the future.
Telling the story of the Williams family through the eyes of siblings Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) and Emily (Taylor Russell). Both high school students trying to live up to the expectations of their demanding but loving father Ronald (Sterling K Brown), the two both bend to the stress in different ways as their supportive stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) watches on. Their idyllic lifestyle comes crashing down but the question is, at least in their minds is, who is really to blame.
Split into his and her chapters, Shults (who wrote, directed and co-edited the film) doesn’t start his story properly until the halfway point, instead, building up this family to fail in dramatic fashion. This false start should not work but the constantly moving camera, Harrison Jr’s electrifying performance and an invasive gaze make every frame seem like the collection of evidence, the building of an argument. Building up to the inciting incident, Shults shows the hidden conflicts in a family that seems perfect from the outside, the little things that accumulate, the insecurities we all carry but can debilitate if we allow them to.
It’s the films following moments, Emily’s story, that really develops Waves into the relevant and cutting look at modern family life it proves to be. Full of wonderfully natural performances, especially by Russell and Goldsberry, Shults shows the way people you had come to understand, change in subtle ways under the pressure of extreme damage, ways that force you to realise you never knew them at all. A moment of peace by the side of a lake proves not only therapeutic but revealing in how we cling to clichés of middle-class living without ever truly looking at the self-doubt that comes with it.The addition of Lucas Hedges as Tyler’s wrestling teammate brings out the effect of pain isn’t just based off of one’s class, although part of Ronald’s mindset seems to suggest otherwise.
The real star here, however, is Shults, in tandem with cinematographer Drew Daniels who use a colour palette that brings out the Florida landscape but also the optimistic mindset of its youthful narrators. The constantly spinning camera brings everything into focus, not just the internal struggles Waves feeds off of. Shults’ eye is inquisitive, much in the same way, these characters are.
The inherent disorientation that comes from such a fast-moving and constantly hungry viewpoint only aids in the idea that our wavering attentions stop us from seeing what is really important thanks to all the noise and outside pressures we must endure. A recurring motif of a spinning camera on a car journey shows the growth of these characters as initially it is used to point out the self-absorbed nature of teenagers, only to evolve into an examination of how the childish can give way to the loving.
While it cuts deep, the moments in Waves that linger are the slow-moving ones, the hard conversations we all must have but fight against. In that regard, Emily’s story far surpasses Tyler’s because of the intimacy it conveys but without the tension, the ominous buildup and the thrilling first half, Waves would be just another film about loss and suffering, a form of emotional punishment and Shults wants better for these characters and for us. Disjointed but for good reason, Waves is unlike anything you will watch this year and because of that, it might just be one of the best things you watch this year.