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Review: Waves – “Epic and emotionally devastating”

From writer-director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night), Waves stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. (It Comes at Night), Taylor Russell (Lost in Space), Alexa Demie (Mid90s), Renee Goldsberry (The House With a Clock in Its Walls), Sterling K. Brown (Black Panther) and Lucas Hedges (Ladybird).

Father, Ronald (Brown) has a bad knee and a chip on his shoulder. He never got to fulfil his high school wrestling ambitions so is living through his rising star golden-boy son Tyler Harrison Jr.). Ronald is not a bad man or a bad father, but the toxic masculinity he is unintentionally exerting in the way he pushes, pressurises and protects his family causes Tyler to hide a serious injury, the pregnancy of his girlfriend Alexis (Demie) and the beginnings of addiction.

He and his wife Catharine (Goldsberry), the children’s’ stepmother, have poured all their energies into Tyler, leaving Emily (Russell) to her own devices. So, when Tyler crashes and burns the pair must contemplate, reevaluate and attempt to repair every aspect of their family, as Emily strikes out on her own adventure with a new boyfriend Luke (Hedges).

The performances are across the board excellent. Sterling K. Brown balances strict and sympathetic and believably emotionally grows throughout. Goldsberry’s turn has less screentime and is subtler, but you can always feel the fragility of not being the teens’ “real” mother emanating from her, and her shutdown when things breakdown is heartbreaking.

All the younger actors also excel, with Kelvin Harrison Jr. appearing to run away with the film as a young man struggling to carry what feels like the weight of the world. Even when his character shifts gears later, you are still strapped into his backseat uselessly hoping for him to make better choices – sad with, not angry at, him.

I said “appearing to run away” because somehow when Taylor Russell tags in to lead the second part of the film she delivers work that is just as outstanding. We are also entirely initially wrapped up in Tyler at the start, but unlike mum and dad, then get to spend quality time learning about who she is and what she wants as she falls in love for the first time and goes through experiences that help her to become a young woman who can return to her family and be in a position to make things right.

Waves deals with A LOT, but it never feels like Shults is juggling. The drama never strays into the melodramatic and always feels both natural and NOW, and his narrative approach is careful and considered. Time is both invested in characters and taken in showing their development. A real skill at directing actors, storytelling and technical craftsmanship is on show as Shults sensitively deals with self-destruction and the fallout of a tragedy, but also balances the film’s tone with wonderful moments that capture pure joy and freedom and cute and awkward first meetings and the sweet ache of young love.

Cinematographer Drew Daniels gives Waves a uniquely colourful look and bottles the specificity of Florida’s space and place. Neighbourhoods, long bridge freeways, bays, oceans and rivers are all used to keep up a visual interest and momentum throughout. Other technical aspects of the film like the muscular and physical camerawork that is not just for style, but moves and thrusts and twists to follow a wrestling match, spins in happiness and slowly dollies in to match the sinking in of life-changing moments too adds an extra layer of cinephilic enjoyment, as do the changes in aspect ratio and kaleidoscopic colour cloud timeouts between acts.

The film’s soundtrack features a huge amount of music from the likes of Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator and A$AP Rocky, but it never feels like these are just needle drops. Waves’ contemporary music use always adds to the feeling and enhances the emotional weight. The songs are then counterbalanced by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s incredible electronic industrial anguish score that perfectly reflects inner shattering and struggling when events spiral out of control.

Waves is an absolute stunner of a film that will make you feel every way possible. It is a beautifully photographed, epic and emotionally devastating thoroughly modern family drama with an immense soundtrack and tender wrenching performances that absolutely everybody should see.

Waves is released in the UK on the 17th of January.

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