In Trey Edward Shults' "Waves," an emotionally turbulent, formally exhilarating drama about the travails of a South Florida family, the camera swivels, soars and occasionally comes to a meaningful rest. Sometimes it stalks the characters from behind, as though trying to keep up; sometimes it leans in close, as if to pull them into a tender embrace. This is intensely physical filmmaking, drenched in Florida sunshine and magnetized by the beauty of the actors' faces and bodies. But it is also deeply rooted in its characters' consciousness, alert to the feelings of dread, shame, rage and despair that threaten to bring these fast-moving lives to a standstill.
No one moves faster than Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a teenage athlete with bleached-blond hair and a lust for life that hits you like -- well, a wave. He dominates the first half of this artfully bifurcated drama, and the camera seems to feed on his boundless energy. It spins a full 360 degrees as Tyler and his cheerleader girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), drive along the oceanfront, sticking their limbs out windows and bopping along to Animal Collective. It traces the same restlessly circular motion as Tyler jogs around at wrestling practice and then crashes to the floor as he takes down an opponent.
But things slow down when Tyler returns to his family's suburban home, quickly kissing his stepmother, Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and barely registering the existence of his younger sister, Emily (screen newcomer Taylor Russell). A note of tension creeps in when he mumbles a greeting to his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), a gruff authoritarian who treats every exchange as an opportunity for Tyler's improvement. That's true whether they're having an argument or pumping iron in their home gym, pushing each other on and tearing up their muscles. Ronald tries hard to convince his son, or maybe just himself, that all this toughness is for Tyler's own good.
"We are not afforded the luxury of being average," Ronald lectures his son. "Gotta work 10 times as hard just to get anywhere." It's an honest if prosaic line in a movie that's less inventive verbally than it is visually. It's also one of the few moments when race, the unignorable reality of the Williams family's blackness, is explicitly acknowledged. (Another comes later, when a stranger hurls a racist epithet at Tyler.) That blackness can hardly be extricated from Tyler and Ronald's competitive spirit, much less the extraordinary pressure they take upon themselves to succeed in a society that likes to keep them in their place.
But the emotions that erupt over the course of this sad, sweeping story -- frustrated ambition, defiant anger, inconsolable grief, rejected love -- spring from a place that a viewer of any background will instinctively recognize. Shults, a prodigiously talented 31-year-old, deals in bold aesthetic gestures and equally bold, emphatic emotions. His work merges the raw, ragged immediacy of John Cassavetes and the dreamy poetry of Terrence Malick (whom he worked with on the documentary "Voyage of Time"), and he shares with both filmmakers an admirable gift for constructing drama from scraps of reality, for teasing out tremors of emotion from the stuff of everyday experience.
Shults' subject, here as in his earlier features "Krisha" and "It Comes at Night," is the fragility of the American family. "Waves" strikes me as perhaps his wildest, most undisciplined essay on that subject, and also his grandest and most affecting. The brash showmanship of his technique can sometimes overpower the subtler emotional demands of his material, but it also touches deep reservoirs of feeling that a more cautious approach might never have managed. More than anything, this is the work of a filmmaker who is never content merely to record action like a passive observer. Shults insists on thinking with the camera.
Harrison, whose performances in "It Comes at Night" and the recent "Luce" marked him as one of the most interesting and mercurial talents of his generation, makes Tyler a furious study in self-isolation; his confusion is all too recognizable and his rage is terrifying. His troubles begin with little more than a nagging soreness in his shoulder, followed by a doctor's visit that confirms his worst fears. Around the same time, Alexis, with whom he enjoys an active and highly photogenic social-media coupledom, finds out that she's pregnant. Tyler is too selfish, too human, to see these developments as anything more than personal inconveniences: It's as if his body, the source of all his strength and potential, has betrayed him twice over, derailing a once-promising future.
I will avoid commenting further on Tyler's journey so as to preserve the story's more nerve-rattling surprises, but also to avoid falling into the very trap that the movie itself deftly sidesteps. "Waves" is unusually attuned to disparities of gender, the ways in which the anger and recklessness of men too often eclipse the needs, dreams and accomplishments of women. Tyler is entirely unreceptive to the wishes of his girlfriend, who wants to keep their baby. He is more his father's son than he realizes; Ronald, who takes pride in his successful construction business, belittles Catharine's work and pays only cursory attention to Emily.
The startling, deeply moving second half of "Waves" becomes, in some ways, a principled rebuke of the first. (It also serves to reject the wisdom, uttered by Tyler's wrestling coach, that "there are no second acts.") Emily, whom we have mostly glimpsed in fragments, suddenly emerges as the protagonist. The camera, so wildly kinetic in Tyler's presence, floats and drifts in an approximation of his sister's quieter, more tentative spirit. Emily is perceptive, smart and used to being overlooked; at times she seems to be actively dodging the camera's attention.
But she can't escape its gaze, much less that of a classmate, Luke (Lucas Hedges), who is drawn to her loveliness and moved by her gentle grace. Their awkward initial flirtation quickly flowers into a real relationship, animated by Hedges' puppyish sweetness and Russell's soulful openness. Their bond is strengthened, too, by a mutual understanding of family pain: Luke is dealing with an estranged, gravely ill father, while Emily registers the toll of her parents' ailing marriage and her brother's self-destructive impulses.
Shults has made a despairing picture but not an entirely despondent one. Its very title is an expression of optimism, a suggestion that if happiness is cyclical, maybe grief is too. Superficially, "Waves" refers to the tides we hear pounding the surf in the background of many scenes, and also to the Kendrick Lamar song that goes conspicuously unplayed on the movie's wall-to-wall soundtrack (abetted by another under-the-skin score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). But "Waves" might also describe the very composition of the movie itself: not just the two-act structure but also the way each scene seems to oscillate between dread and ecstasy, tension and release.
Ronald, played with all the wrenching gravity we've come to expect from Brown, puts those emotional polarities into moral terms when he recites a few lines from Proverbs in acknowledgment of his own brokenness: "Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers up all offenses." Shults wants us to linger on the meaning of those words, to consider them as a challenge as well as a source of consolation. He isn't letting anyone off the hook, or making the glib case that redemption naturally follows tragedy. Instead he wants to show us, really show us, how ordinary life manages to persist in the shadow of the unthinkable -- one step, one embrace and one camera move at a time.
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