Filmmaker and Houston native Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) has no intention of restraining his talent as a writer and director. His latest feature Waves, only the third of his career, builds on the intensity and humanity of his first two projects and never lets up.
Waves is split into a pair of separate narratives. The first, which plays like a lit powder keg ready to explode at any second, tells the story of Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a popular and accomplished high school senior and student athlete with a bright future. His character is much like the teenager Harrison played earlier this year in another weighty drama, Luce.
Although Tyler seems happy, his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is an intimidating presence in his life. Ronald loves his son but pushes him to do his best — whether it’s in the classroom or on the mat as an elite scholastic wrestler. With the pressure building, however, Tyler loses control when he suffers a serious injury to his shoulder but tells no one about it. Not only does Tyler begin masking his physical pain with opioids, he conceals his emotional health from everyone except his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell in an Oscar-worthy performance) when he learns his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) is pregnant.
Tyler’s gradual downfall and the predictable fallout are tragic, but they lead the film into its more hopeful half that focuses on Emily and the impact her brother’s impulsive decisions have had on the family. Feeling like an outcast, Emily’s outlook on her situation changes when she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges), a sweet-hearted classmate who becomes someone she can confide in.
From an audiovisual perspective, Waves is easily one of the most confidently directed independent films to hit the big screen this year. The drama is scored sublimely by Oscar winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network), and its sound design, combined with detailed and unique cinematography by Drew Daniels (It Comes at Night), makes for a series of abstract sights and sounds.
Shults’ script is profound too, as he finds a way to seamlessly transition from the first hour of the film into a second that is completely distinct in tone. The familiar messages of tragedy, faith and redemption are not lost on either side. There is little these characters can do when the tide starts turning and they find themselves floating in the middle of a restless ocean. But in Waves, Shults reminds viewers that all storms — even those that seem to destroy everything in their path — shall pass.
Waves opens exclusively at the Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro December 6.