‘Waves’ Review: A Tragic and Cathartic Family Portrait from A24 | TIFF 2019

     September 17, 2019


The trailer for Waves features voiceover from early on in the film when a pastor incorporates 1 Corinthians 13 in his sermon; “Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not rude. It doesn’t boast. Love also forgets wrong.” It can be very difficult to forgive but when all we have is now, why close the door to the freedom and growth that forgiveness can unlock? The depths writer-director Trey Edward Shults achieves while exploring that concept in two hours and 15 minutes is eye-opening and downright astounding.

The movie begins by putting the spotlight on Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler, a high school student who seems to have it all. He’s on the wrestling team, he’s got a girlfriend (Alexa Demie) he loves, a family that supports him, and a bright future ahead of him. But really, Tyler struggles to manage his father’s (Sterling K. Brown) sky high expectations, especially when a number of other major challenges close in.

The first half of Waves is essentially a powder keg. The allure of Tyler’s poise, popularity and charm is undeniable but then Shults drops one complication in his lap after the next. It can be easy to stand tall and put on a happy face when times are good, but the moment unexpected roadblocks creep in, that’s when someone’s character is tested, and that’s exactly what Shults does to Tyler, and ultimately his entire family.


Image via A24

Harrison Jr. has already delivered one unforgettable performance this year in Luce and now he does it again in Waves. His portion of the movie is packed with show-stopping scenes that greatly benefit from Harrison Jr.’s effortless charisma and his ability to encourage the viewer to lean in a little, even during some especially troubling scenes. Waves isn’t a movie that’s quick to judge its characters. It captures every single layer of Tyler and backs all of his choices with a significant amount of development and a firm understanding of what drove him to make them.

Right around the midpoint of the movie, Shults makes the bold decision to switch to Tyler’s sister’s perspective and it’s an astoundingly effective transition. Up until this point, Emily (Taylor Russell) has been relegated to the background. She’s a quiet wallflower, never rocks the boat, and never makes an issue of Tyler consuming her parents’ attention. But, Tyler’s behavior has a ripple effect and it’s fascinating to watch how that changes Emily. Russell delivers a beautifully nuanced performance as Emily blossoms. She’s finally noticed by Lucas Hedges as Luke and they strike up a relationship that’s brimming with laughs courtesy of awkward young love as well as loads of deep passion and heart. 

Shults’ ability to use Tyler and Emily’s respective relationships to shed light on each other without ever losing any forward momentum is highly impressive, especially when you toss in the fact that the two halves of the movie each have their own unique paces and tones. Tyler’s experience is a rollercoaster whereas Emily’s is lovingly gentle. One might expect that to be a jarring switch, but they meld together seamlessly courtesy of the poetic quality in Shults’ filmmaking.


Image via A24

Shults’ script paired with Drew Daniels’ striking visuals and the infectious Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score gives Waves an entrancing quality that pulls you in and refuses to let go, whether you’re watching an emotional blow-up or a more sensitive heart-to-heart. It all comes together in a way that amplifies the intimacy of the experience as well as each character’s individual perspective. There are bright pops of neon and the intoxicating thrill of young adult confidence for Tyler that ultimately devolve into a cold, nightmarish vibe. And for Emily, it’s almost the reverse – severe isolation to a flood of love, warmth and confidence in herself. And then, right in the middle of all of that we have Brown as their father, Ronald, and Renée Elise Goldsberry as their stepmother, Catherine.

Much of the movie is focused on Tyler and Emily, but their experiences are enriched tenfold by the addition of Ronald and Catherine’s perspectives. They’re parents with the best intentions who give everything they have to creating the best possible life for their kids, but sometimes good intentions don’t have the intended results and that’s not the easiest web to untangle. Ronald puts too much pressure on Tyler and Catherine knows it, but her desperation to keep the family together makes it too easy for her to overlook Emily who could really use a mother figure. It isn’t until a particular event that all four feel the urgency to reassess who they are, what they’ve done and how they could be better, both for themselves and for those around them.

And that right there is what makes Waves a phenomenal storytelling feat and one of the best movies of 2019. It’s easy to tell someone, there’s no point in wallowing in sadness or beating yourself up over mistakes made, however, actually taking those ideas to heart and applying them is a completely different story. In Waves, Shults manages to hold his characters accountable for their actions while also giving you a highly creative and deeply moving exploration of the complexity of finding forgiveness. We’re all human and we all make mistakes, but then it comes down to whether or not we learn from those mistakes and persist with compassion, positivity and love.

Grade: A-

For more of our TIFF 2019 coverage click here, and peruse links to the rest of our reviews below:


Image via A24

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