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“Waves” Is A Stunning Work Of Emotional Brilliance

What an incredible evolution filmmaker Trey Edward Shults has gone through in just a few short years. As much as his debut Krisha, as well as his sophomore outing It Comes At Night, hinted at his talents, this week we see the true measure of his abilities. Waves is not just the best work of Shults’ young career, it’s one of the best works of 2019, period. Whatever you’ve heard about this one on the fall film festival circuit is not just appropriate buzz, but a mere hint of the power this contains. In terms of vibrant experiences, nothing in cinemas right now can compare to it.

The film is a keenly observed family drama and a modern American story (tragically, as you’ll come to realize). Taking place in South Florida, the Williams family is an upper class African American clan. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star wrestler in high school and constantly under the gun to excel by his domineering yet well intentioned father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). Ronald constantly hammers home to Tyler that he has to be the best, or else the life he’s providing could easily vanish. Tyler has a gentle relationship with his slightly younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and his step mom Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), but he clashes with his dad. As we observe his day to day routine, we also see his relationship with girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) evolve. That’s just the first act. The second act builds upon hints in the first, until a tragic loss occurs. Then, the focus turns to how the family comes together and picks up the pieces, while introducing another player in fellow high schooler Like (Lucas Hedges). The less you know going in, the better. Shults writes and directs, while the rest of the cast includes Clifton Collins Jr., Krisha Fairchild, Vivi Pineda, and more. Cinematography is by Drew Daniels, while the score comes from the now iconic duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

From top to bottom, this is a stunning achievement. Shults’ filmmaking, the score from Reznor and Ross, as well as the performances by Brown, Harrison Jr., Hedges, and Russell are particularly exemplary. For two hours and fifteen minutes, an epic yet intimate tale is being expertly told. Watching the acting, cinematography, editing, and score come together, one has to look at Shults as an emerging master. Nothing he has done so far has prepared you for this. At once intimate and epic, there are no wrong notes hit. If not for a slight hump to get over towards the end of the second act, this would be a perfect work. Brown and Hedges have become among the best in the business, so it’s not shocking that they’re excellent here, though the former has never been better. Russell is a revelation, while Harrison Jr. is stunningly phenomenal. Shults has such a firm grasp on the story he wants to tell, he gives his cast and crew (especially Reznor and Ross, with their pulse raising score) a scintillating roadmap to follow.

Waves has moments that will take your breath away. During the first half, a building of tension makes this much more than just your standard character study or family drama. You’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and when it does, it’s equal parts inevitable and unexpected. From there, Shults makes an incredibly bold choice, downshifting and finding the tender core of the story. His directorial decisions may not sit well with everyone, but for the story he’s chosen to tell, the moves he makes are heart wrenchingly real. A true visionary is emerging here.

A big question is how the movie will play with Oscar. A24 has something that’s awards worthy, but will voters open themselves up to it? The flick could end up wholly embraced or ignored. Both are equally likely outcomes. However, that shouldn’t matter, as this is a tremendous work that demands to be seen. Any extra attention on the precursor circuit is merely a bonus. However, just based on merit, Waves deserves heavy consideration in Best Picture, Best Director (for Shults), Best Supporting Actor (for Brown), Best Original Screenplay (also for Shults), and Best Original Score.

This weekend, anyone who appreciates cinema should make it their business to seek Waves out. This is one of the year’s very best films. It’s a one of a kind experience, full of emotional brilliance and an ultimately beautiful message. Audiences will certainly go through a lot here, but it’s 100% worth it. The festival buzz is more than apt, as A24 has an absolute stud on their hands. Seek this one out ASAP, hopefully this week, but if not, in the weeks to come as it expands. You won’t regret it…

Be sure to check out Waves, beginning its theatrical run this Friday!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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