From the outside looking in, Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) has it all. He’s a star athlete, on track for a wrestling scholarship. He has a loving and supportive family, and a girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), who adores him. Life seemingly can’t get much better for the Florida teen. But life is rarely so simple, and there’s no exception for Tyler. Cracks begin to form underneath his shiny facade. Tyler’s father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) constantly pressures him to be better, often pushing Tyler right up to the edge of – and beyond – his emotional, mental, and physical limits. Tyler aggravates a shoulder injury, putting his entire wrestling future in jeopardy. To cope, he drinks and takes pills. And to top it all off, Alexis becomes pregnant.
It’s enough to make even the most stable person crumble. And crumble he does. And the way director Trey Edward Shults shows us this journey – and the rest of Waves’ stories – is nothing short of incredible. He gives viewers an up close (often literally, with multiple fantastic close up camera shots) look at Tyler’s turmoil. Other characters are involved and important, but this section of Waves is Tyler’s story. Aided by a first-rate performance from Harrison (who was also excellent earlier this year in Luce), Waves gives the audience an intense look at someone’s life falling apart faster than he can ask for help.
Shults uses everything at his disposal to make this journey as impactful and emotional as possible. From the score and soundtrack to the color scheme to manic camera swivels, every single detail serves a greater purpose. And it all comes together perfectly. And because of what follows, it had to.
What Waves does next is daring and inventive. Most films follow the traditional three act structure: Setup, Confrontation, Resolution. But not Waves. No, Shults decided to split his movie in two, something you rarely see a movie do. At a certain point, the movie shifts from Tyler to his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). While Tyler still looms in the background, the story is distinctly Emily’s from this point on.
The job Taylor Russell is tasked with is enormous. She doesn’t have a ton of time in the first part of the movie, so she has to fit in her own complete story in about half the time. In a movie filled with excellent acting, Russell is a revelation. She stands out in a way few could have likely predicted; hopefully we’re witnessing the breakout of one of the next top actors.
In breaking the larger story into two, Shults went for it all. This larger story at play here, the one that begins the movie, typically focuses on one main character, with everyone else in their various supporting roles. But here, Waves shows two complete character arcs, on different sides of the same coin. It’s a remarkable feat. From the highs and lows of Tyler’s life, to how that affects Ronald and Catharine, to what Emily experiences during the same time period and beyond, Waves hits on every emotional level you can imagine.
It rips your heart out and smashes it to pieces, before offering a helping hand to put those pieces back together. There’s your normal family drama, teen angst, the ups and downs of young love. And it hits on much more intense emotional queues (all of which are better left unknown going into the movie), handling each with an equally deft hand.
With a story this dense, combined with the unusual narrative structure, Shults gave himself a daunting task. But he proves more than up to the challenge, doing justice to every character without sacrificing the larger storylines at hand. Directing just his third feature film, Shults has quickly solidified himself as a force to be reckoned with.
While one of the year’s best films, Waves is also one of the most powerful and evocative films to boot. A near-perfectly structured story, anchored by top-tier performances across the board, Waves is one you don’t want to miss. Just maybe don’t make any plans for afterwards; take it from me, you’ll need some time to decompress and work through everything it made you feel.