Riding into Chicago’s film festival somewhat under the radar was director Trey Edward Shults with his third feature, Waves. He was there to present the film, along with its two young rising stars in Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrisson Jr. Immediately when the three of them took the stage there was a sense of energy that overtook the crowd and that carried forward throughout the film. Waves is one of the most memorable films of the year, with dynamite performances, an electric soundtrack featuring some of this decade’s best indie and hip hop artists, another sublime score from the duo of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, some truly hypnotic and inspired direction from Shults, all eloquently shot by Drew Daniels, who has now worked with Shults on all three projects. Each aspect of this film is an achievement of its own right and when combined, we get a cinematic revelation that will surely be discussed for years to come.
The story and its characters themselves are enough to warrant praise, before even getting into more technical aspects of the film. We are introduced to our family of four, with mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), father (Sterling K. Brown), and their two kids, played by Taylor Russell and Kelvin Harrison Jr. When we first meet them they appear to be a fairly average and unified upper-middle-class family. However, the pressures of teenage life soon creep up for Tyler (Harrison Jr.) as he tries to balance school, his wrestling team, impressing his somewhat demanding father, and his relationship with his girlfriend. Not much more can be said without wading into spoiler territory, but things escalate very quickly and there are numerous moments of shock and awe as life hits this family harder than anyone could have expected. With this, things mount to a weighty crescendo that leaves the audience in a state of dismay, yet we quickly learn this family’s story isn’t over. Because of this, the film is one of the starkest examples of a tale of two halves in recent memory. This divide is quite jarring at first, yet begins to make more sense over the course of its second half and rounds out the film beautifully, providing even more mystique and adding to the viewer’s deep connection with this family.
As stated earlier, the performances given by these four actors are all simply divine, filling the screen with emotion and filling the audience with empathy. Sterling K. Brown is, of course, the most accomplished of the four, yet in the context of this film he doesn’t appear to be on any greater standing than the others, falling in step yet delivering one hell of a supporting performance and providing nuance to his character both as a father and as a husband. Opposite of him is Renée Elise Goldsberry, most famous for her role on the ABC soap opera One Life to Live, who gets the least to do of the four, but nonetheless is great in her role and has believable chemistry with Brown in their scenes together. But alas, young stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell are the heart of this story and boy do they shine. The two of them are sure to have long careers ahead and with their presence in this film, it’s easy to have lofty expectations going forward. This is their movie, they know it, and they want you to know it, too. Look out.
Perhaps the film’s greatest star, however, is Trey Edward Shults himself. Building off previous successes Krisha (2015) and It Comes at Night (2017), Shults arrives at age 31 with his most ambitious film yet and without a doubt, it has paid off. Within seconds of this film’s beginning, it is easy to tell you are at the hands of a newly arrived auteur rich with ideas, skill, and vibrancy. His talent is on full display here with multiple uses of 360-degree camera pans and a keen eye for capturing the mundane. He employs a style somewhat akin to Barry Jenkins’ flair in Moonlight, mixed with the youthful energy that drives Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. Going off that, Waves captures its Florida backdrop much the same way that Jenkins was able to in Moonlight with some truly awe-inspiring cinematography. Combine this with a Reznor & Ross score and a soundtrack laced with the likes of Tame Impala, Animal Collective, Frank Ocean, Tyler, the Creator and more, and you get a lot of the same connection to this generation’s coming of age that Wilde was able to conjure up in Booksmart. In this way, Waves should act as a wonderful time capsule to this generation for years to come.
For the current generation of filmmakers, Trey Edward Shults has entered the fray as someone to keep an eye out for. With Waves, his reputation as a visionary has become undeniable. Though his ambitions may escape him at times during the excessive amount of needle-drops and some pacing issues that reflect a young filmmaker still honing his craft, the technical and artistic prowess behind Schults is astounding nonetheless. Waves is bound to make a splash as more and more people get to see it and because of its innate way of portraying familial bonds, teenage angst, romantic ventures, and dealing with grief, it isn’t too hard to see how it will leave a lasting impression on audiences in the coming months and years. It is one of the most powerful and affecting experiences you will have in a theater this year and as it washes over you, your emotions will escape your control. Such is Waves, a triumph of 2019 in cinema, in culture, and in life.