Waves film review: an emotionally-charged take on family, love and grief

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Waves follows one family’s epic emotional journey as they navigate love, forgiveness and coming together in the wake of a tragic loss.

With Waves, it’s impossible not to be swept into the flood. Set in South Florida, director Trey Edward Shults’ third film is a stylish tale about an upper-middle class black family and the tragedy that ripples out into their lives after some bad decisions. 

It is a film of two parts, where each is equal to its whole. The first begins with Tyler (an utterly brilliant performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr, nominated for a BAFTA Rising Star award), a likeable high school student and wrestling star. It seems like he’s got the world at his fingertips, including a potential college scholarship and the cool girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie, best known for HBO drama Euphoria).

Kelvin Harrison Jr in Waves

Llife at home, however, isn’t easy. There, Tyler has to contend with his withdrawn sister Emily (newcomer Taylor Russell), step-mother, Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and father Ronald (This is Us star Sterling K.Brown) – a man who loves his son, but pushes and pushes him to be his very best. 

The subject of race isn’t explicitly explored. However, there’s a poignant moment where Ronald, talking about the pressure put on young black men and women, explains: “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

These words ring true when Tyler suffers a serious shoulder injury in a wrestling accident and becomes addicted to painkillers. His world implodes, as the life that was drawn out him for him disappears bit by bit, until things reach a shocking, visceral crescendo… and one which there is no coming back from.

Taylor Russell in Waves

Then suddenly, radically, the narrative shifts. The rest of this story is Emily’s to tell, because this was never just one person’s story. Nothing ever is. Life is a series of inter-connected moments, explored here in gorgeous 3-D.

Emily retreats even further from the world after her brother’s breakdown, but finally begins to heal when she meets a sweet boy at school, Luke (Lucas Hedges) and goes on to nurse him through a tragedy of his own. In this role, Russell is tender, astute and utterly engaging; Shults has uncovered a true talent.

It’s the pace of this film that truly sets it apart. While the first half of Waves is dizzying, sometimes unbearably tense and explodes with bright colours, the second part shifts into something slower and more languid, as if to reflect the softer, calmer – and more isolated – way Emily moves through the world. And the soundtrack, which features artists such as Kendrick Lamar, H.E.R. and SZA, is absolutely banging throughout.    

There is much more to say about the plot of Waves, but to do so puts us at risk of spoilers. All you need to know is this: it’s the emotional gut-punch this pallid January needs. 

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Waves is in cinemas nationwide on 17 January.

Images: A24

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