A Family’s Tragedy Told in Precise Delirium


Waves is almost too much movie to handle. In a brilliantly orchestrated barrage of delirium, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults absorbs the viewers, rendering us firsthand witnesses to the tragic extremes and in-betweens of the lives of the film’s teenager characters.

Trey (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell) are middle-class high school-aged sister and brother living in a nice house in Florida. Dad (Sterling K. Brown) is remarried to well-intentioned entrepreneur (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a slow burning cause of strife in their marriage. Trey is a wrestling champ. He pushes himself far further than his body will physically allow.  It’s starting to take its toll, as his shoulder’s functionality is in real danger.  But, the messaging is clear: for an African-American to get ahead in this world- to even be average- he must push himself ten times harder.  Weight training.  Running.  Heart rate monitoring.  Sweat.  Hyperventilating.  More sweat.  More sweat.

Visually, Waves is color corrected within an inch of its life, so much so that the colorist is giving a standalone credit in the opening titles. And, it is with good reason, as the oversaturated reality of Waves, particularly the film’s bold and Book of Job-like first half, plays like the Florida-based immersive mental decline that it is.  On the surface, it would appear that Trey has everything going for him. He’s a handsome athlete with a cool truck and a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie) and a rack full of wrestling metals in his bedroom.  But his head is far from being in the game proper.

Honest to goodness, by the time it was apparent that his arc had ended, I thought the movie was over. Not that that first hour is draggy or dull- quite the opposite!  It’s just, that’s how effectively emotionally draining Waves is, what with all its mounting unchecked male aggression and misapplied motivational browbeating.  There’s a rare, satisfying exhaustion to this portion of Waves, a nightmare slowly brought forth in a hallucinogenic pulse and the dead-on ominous score of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  

In the opening credits I noticed the name of rising star Lucas Hedges. It’s a liberal estimate to say that the actor had just appeared for perhaps ten seconds in the first half of the film. As the film seems to be winding down (but in reality, over an hour to go), he literally brushes past Emily during a school scene.  Soon enough though, my fleeting thoughts of “Wow, Hedges must have a really, really good agent“ turned to bearing witness that the emergence of his much-needed character, the eventual kindhearted boyfriend of Emily, is the loving heart of this tortured picture.  That the film pivots to such an extreme degree in order to accommodate the journey of he and Emily is, as far as this critic is concerned, is the overall plus column.

Waves packs a wallop, there’s no denying that.  Shults, coming into heavy drama from the acclaimed horror film It Comes at Night, fully earns the right to do what he does to his audience.  Seeing a film like Waves is simply too big of an emotional ask and time commitment (at two hours and fifteen minutes) for many.  While that is understood, it would be wrong to overlook this envelopingly precise effort as one of the finest films of 2019.