Waves review: An unflinchingly emotional tale from a director with an endlessly inventive approach

In the opening scenes of Trey Edward Shults’ emotionally draining family drama Waves, a teenage couple coast down a Florida highway, bopping their heads to blaring music, smugly sure of themselves and their love.

As they drive, Shults’ camera does a giddy 360-degree spin around the car and sweeps out on to the road ahead. It seems flashy but it’s a statement of intent: this torrid tale will be told from many viewpoints. As for the young lovers, they’re convinced that the world is their oyster, but are in for a rude awakening.

He is Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an African-American high school senior who’s been getting good grades and is the star of his high school wrestling team. She is Alexis Lopez (Alexa Demie), cheerleading queen bee and his obvious mate. They do seem to love each other, but neither have had much experience of adversity, and are ill-prepared when it inevitably arrives. The first mishap seems trivial, though not to Tyler: when he sustains a shoulder injury in training, a doctor tells him he must stop wrestling immediately and have an operation. He’s hoping to make the State team, so ignores this advice, redoubles his training and starts stealing his father’s painkillers.

Alexis, meanwhile, has missed her period, and realises she’s pregnant. She initially decides to have an abortion, but after enduring an emotional trip to a clinic during which she’s abused by so-called ‘pro-life’ campaigners, Alexis changes her mind. Tyler, though, is furious that she’s planning to keep the baby, and his anger leads to a life-changing tragedy.

Tyler has been pushed hard through his teenage years by his loving but strict father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), who does weights with the boy and checks his homework and tells him that “we [African-Americans] have to do twice as well” and “don’t have the luxury of being average”. For Ronald, only success will do, and Tyler gets the same message from his high school coaches, who tell him that coming second is the same as coming last. With a mindset like that, Tyler has nowhere to go psychologically when things turn bad, and after his fall there’s plenty of guilt to be spread around.

Shults’ camera then moves silently along the landing of the Williams’ home to the bedroom of Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), whose world has been turned upside down. Forced to confront and absorb her brother’s actions, she withdraws from the world, eats alone in her school canteen and assumes a familial mantle of shame. But Emily is tougher than Tyler or her parents, and when a white classmate called Luke (Lucas Hedges) begins chatting to her, she slowly opens up to the possibility of moving on.

Renee Elise Goldsberry plays Catherine, Tyler and Emily’s stepmother, and we also witness the massive pressure the boy’s actions place on their relationship. “You pushed him!”, Catherine blurts out at one point, pointing her finger at Ronald and telling him something he already knows. It’s a heartbreaking moment, one of several in a film that’s unflinching honest emotionally.

There are fine performances of course, from Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison and particularly from Taylor Russell, whose bereft but unbreakable Emily becomes the backbone of this film. But the best thing about Waves is the way its story is told.

In his previous films, Krisha and It Comes at Night, Trey Edward Shults has shown a real willingness to pull his stories clear of words and employ the more direct and visceral tools of sound and vision.

In Waves (waves of grief perhaps?), his eye is constantly on the move, soaring around his fairly simple premise to explore the disintegrating world of the family at its centre from multiple angles, orchestrating music, sounds, light and mood and forcing them to run in the same direction. Time and again a scene that might have been hackneyed in other hands springs wonderfully to life thanks to Shults’ willingness to take risks with his cinematography.

Emily, wise beyond her years, persuades Luke to travel to Missouri to visit his estranged father, who’s dying. As they travel north, this other young couple must balance their happiness together with the daunting prospect of the test that lies ahead: their journey offers a sobering counterpoint to Tyler and Alexis’ heady euphoria at the start, and this pair have their feet more firmly on the ground.

Shults’ film has been dismissed as melodrama by some US critics but I must say I thoroughly disagree. It’s emotional certainly, sometimes upsetting, but at no point are the characters’ sufferings cheaply used, and the writer/director’s endlessly inventive and fluent approach makes Waves feel like something new.

(15A, 136mins)

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