“History never repeats itself but it rhymes.”
That Mark Twain quote is a wonderfully reoccurring motif that pops up in Waves, the third film from writer-director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night), a stunning examination of the dynamics of an upper-middle class African-American family, teenage relationships, trauma and forgiveness. It’s one of the year’s best films.
Waves begins with Tyler (breakout star Kelvin Harrison, Jr. in an electrifying performance) and Alexis (an excellent Alexa Demie of HBO’s Euphoria) driving down a Florida causeway, blasting and singing as the camera circles around them over and over. It’s dizzying and exciting, the visualization of young love, reckless with abandon and living in the moment.
Tyler’s dad Ronald (a perfect Sterling K. Brown) is the lead contractor for a construction company. His wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is a physician and is Ronald’s second wife; his first died of a drug overdose. Tyler and his sister Emily (the absolutely flawless Taylor Russell) love Catherine as their own mother. For Emily, she’s often riding backseat to older brother Tyler, with all of her father’s attention going to him. They work out together (the side by side flexes of Harrison and Brown are…quite something), they fight together. Emily seems content with this arrangement as it keeps some pressure off of her (plus, she comes into her own later). In these moments, Harrison is an absolute star. He perfectly exudes the hyper-masculinity demands of his father and his school but alone is deeply troubled and soulful.
Tyler is a wrestling star at school but is hiding a serious shoulder injury in which his doctor warns him that he should not only stop wrestling for the season but that he should never again, even after surgery. Tyler defies the doc and keeps his injury a secret to the point where he resorts to stealing his father’s oxycontin just to get by day to day.
Shults populates his film with a vibrant sensory overload of color and sound and at times resembles HBO’s Euphoria (not the least of which is that they share a star) but unlike that show’s flights into hyper-reality and fantasy, Waves largely exists in a very real place at every moment (keep your eyes out for aspect ratio changes though). It’s a palpable feeling, like a humid Florida summer day where you can taste the air.
A devastating event happens about 2/3 into the film and it’s shocking and jarring. It will test the audience’s allegiance to a certain character, for sure. But what also happens is that this story is not over. The perspective and story then take a dramatic turn to Emily and in this section the tone and pace of the film also changes. We see how siblings raised in the same environment take such divergent paths. Emily has a wonderful meet cute with wrestler Luke (Lucas Hedges, so good here) and he’s sweet, kinda milquetoast and a perfect counterbalance to the severe drama that was laid at her feet in the film’s first half.
This section of the film threatens to dip a bit into This Is Us territory with his family dynamic (again, due to the fact they share a star) but never strays into schmaltz. It maintains the balance of the film’s styles, perspectives and outcomes with the assured hand of a master.
A24 will release Waves in select theaters on November 15.