Courtesy of A24
Taylor Russel, Kelvin Harrison Jr, and Sterling K Brown are at the forefront of Trey Edward Shults’ (“It Comes At Night”) compelling coming-of-age drama “Waves.” Like waves themselves, the film is one domino effect after the other, one event transpires which then directly affects the following situation. If a character had just taken a step into the opposite direction, perhaps the outcome would be different. Obviously, that’s the case in life and hindsight is 20/20, but the medium at which Shults presents “Waves” truly bares the weight of certain actions and their horrific consequences.
Mostly filled with unimaginable pain and heartache, “Waves” surprisingly opens on a rather joyful note, as Shults’ guides his camera through the ordinary, everyday life of successful Florida teen Tyler (Harrison Jr). Tyler’s sister is the ambitious Emily (Russell) and he’s got a supportive stepmom named Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and a girlfriend named Alexis (Alexa Demi of “Euphoria” fame). Tyler is a tremendously talented athlete, and though he spats with his stern father Ronald (Sterling K Brown) from time to time, he knows how good he’s got it, even when he’s dad tells him how hard it is for a black man to be successful.
And then, like a ripple effect, Tyler’s world comes crashing down around him. A shoulder injury is set to derail his senior year and college prospects, and he doesn’t want to tell his family in fear of their retaliation. Instead, he pops pain pills and slowly slips into a deranged mental state of fear and anxiety. Already in a horrible mindset to begin with, more tragedy unspools on Tyler and before we can process the events, “Waves” shifts gears into another film altogether. This time from the perspective of Emily, signaling “Waves” was never just Tyler’s story.
From there, things get a little iffy as “Waves” has two seemingly intersecting storylines going on, and the bait and switch approach kind of threw me for a doozy. Lucas Hedges makes an extended appearance as the love interest for Emily and the two spark a passionate love affair while she tries to deal with a fractured home life. This sort of dense and complex storytelling requires a lot of trust in its performers and Shults has found the right brigade for the job. Especially Harrison Jr whose having a breakthrough year between this and last summer’s sensational “Luce.” Throw Russell and Brown into the mix and “Waves” comes up just short of being a knockout.
But one film is clearly better than the other in “Waves.” Tyler’s story is haunting and devastating while Emily’s is tender and slight. Both push the needle in terms of emotional poignancy (and feature Sterling K Brown at his absolute best), one is unforgettable and the other is noteworthy while not exactly spell-bounding. Sometimes, you just have to drift with the tide.