Waves – Review: A Relentlessly Frustrating Experience

Director: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown
Cinematographer: Drew Daniels

I hate Waves. Let’s start there. In fact, I walked out of the theater desperately clinging onto the positives in hopes of letting my hatred subside. But the truth is this: those unsettling feelings in the pit of my stomach never ceased- even a week after viewing the film. In actuality, it made me realize how much of it just wasn’t good.

For starters, there’s the storytelling. It’s centered around a black American family navigating through life, relationships, tragedy, and forgiveness. Embedded within this main plot are side stories about a black father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, This is Us), being too hard on his son Tyler, a daughter Emily (Taylor Russell, Escape Room) who comes second to her brother and his achievements, and a son named Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce) who develops a habit of substance abuse as a means to cope with the misfortunes in his life. The problem is, these stories don’t ever develop into a cohesive structure, nor do they come together to round out a plot. Rather, there are multiple experiences and circumstances the characters go through, but they never really lead anywhere on screen.

The structure of the film is partly to blame for that. This audacious feature is played in two parts, and it’s frustrating- slowly revealing small things about the characters up to a point. For instance, the first half of the film seems to have forgotten that anybody else in the family existed besides Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., Luce)- the star athlete of the family with the beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie, Euphoria). One isolated event eventually rips the Williams family apart, which finally puts other characters under the microscope. But maybe that was the point: to showcase how too much pressure and spotlight on a young black man from his parents, his girlfriend and society can lead to tragedy and neglect (of other family members). But if this were the case, showing would have been better than telling in mere isolated conversations. 

Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Taylor Russell in Waves (2019)
IMDb | Courtesy of A24

Prior to the film building to that grand tragedy, Waves plays around with the concept of a strict, black father (Ron, played by Brown) who pushes his son beyond the brink. In one conversation, he mentions it’s all to prepare him for a world in which young black men are an afterthought. It’s frustrating that Shults chose to depict such a relationship without any substance. Is Ron saying these things from experience? Is there a reason he refuses to listen to his son when Tyler is clearly hurt mentally and physically? Showcasing the habitual strictness of black parenting on screen is lazy without foundation and substance, but that’s exactly what Shults does. It weakens the characters and relationships between them. And in this case, it plays more like someone else’s story  that attempts to cater to black audiences and their experiences.

At the peak of the film [the tragedy], the lack of exploration around the ramifications just seems silly, but that’s exactly what happens in Waves. There’s a secondary cause and effect display that feels as frustrating as the entire first half – stereotypes, oddly-placed music and all. But as a result, the film comes off irresponsible- completely lacking substance when needed, especially when the focus is mostly on one character.

However, the film does eventually give other family members screentime, most of which is dedicated to Emily Williams (Taylor Russell, Escape Room). Emily is Tyler’s neglected sister who must learn to move on- all while finishing her last years of high school. Here, the second half feels like a completely different film as it unfolds to a more open-hearted one that acknowledges guilt, grudge and forgiveness. However, Shults opts to give Emily a love interest, Luke (Lucas Hedges, Honey Boy), as a means to learn forgiveness through his family issues. (There goes the savior trope again!) But I think incorporating another side story (that takes away from our main family) is a poor choice in storytelling, especially considering we didn’t have enough time with the Williams family (post tragedy) as it is, save a couple of conversations.

courtesy of A24

More than anything, I wanted to love what I witnessed in the film, but there’s a certain distraction that came along with Shults’ direction as well. It’s ambitious, to say the least; but often, the scene transitions are muddled, and the overall direction feels erratic. There’s no denying the creativity that encompasses the direction; but if felt less like intentional choices that speak to the story at hand or ones that would enhance the watching experience. Instead, the direction felt more like early-stage, fragmented ideas and poor editing choices masked behind gorgeous cinematography. Consequently, moments that should have generated intensity and emotional turmoil came off incredible cheap and dishonest.

But if there’s one thing that’s excellent about Waves, it’s the cast and performances. Kelvin Harrison Jr. has had himself a year, and he shows no signs of slowing down. What he was able to do with his character despite the restrictions of the story is what helps me find positives within Waves. Taylor Russell, however, is the absolute standout for me. What she did in her short screen time and dialogue in the first half was remarkable. Her presence, alone, is felt even when the story centers around her neglect. In the second half of Waves, Russell continues her powerful performance showing restraint when necessary and letting her emotions take over at the peak of her character’s personal realization. Because of the cast, some of the restrictions within the film are somewhat forgivable. But I’d be lying to myself if I didn’t mention that Waves is an incredibly wasted opportunity to explore all the things it claims to- especially regarding the dynamics in a black American household as they navigate through the ups and downs of life.

Rating: ★★

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