‘Waves’ Review: A Devastating Suburban Family Drama That Grips You

Production outfit A24 continues to be known for films that strike a chord in film enthusiasts, particularly millennials. This month sees the release of the latest A24 opus, Waves, a portrait of teen angst, love, forgiveness, and how to move forward all in the backdrop of a series of tragedies. Prior to its theatrical release, the film screened at the 919 Film Fest.

Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry in 'Waves'
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, and Renée Elise Goldsberry in ‘Waves’ | A24

A story rarely seen onscreen

Waves chronicles the Williamses, a suburban black family in South Florida, and the trials and tribulations they go through, specifically after a traumatic event alters their lives forever. At the center is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) the family’s eldest child and popular student-athlete at his school.

Confident-appearing on the outside with an equally as popular girlfriend at his side, Alexis (Alexa Demie), he’s actually struggling on the inside, mostly due to immense pressure from his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). Tyler’s quiet and softspoken younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), is very much his opposite, and her presence seems to be dimmed by that of her brother, especially in the eyes of their father. It’s few and far between that we see a family like this onscreen, which makes the film’s representation just important as the body of work itself. Renée Elise Goldsberry plays the family matriarch, Catherine, and Lucas Hedges is Luke, a character that becomes intertwined with Emily.

The duality of two siblings and complex family relationships

Inside the story of Waves are multiple smaller stories that encapsulate the film’s message of love and forgiveness — no matter what. The film’s three acts are squarely focused on a trio of narratives. The first two focus on Tyler, while the latter one focuses on Emily. After a series of tragic events, the family starts to unravel. Though these are a result of Tyler’s actions, he isn’t necessarily the root of the cause. He suffers an injury while wrestling and the domino effect changes his life and the life of his family and loved ones forever. The third act places Emily in a position to rebuild what was lost.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie
Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie in ‘Waves’ | A24

Though Shults’ directing and unpredictable script are solid and continue to establish him as one of the best new talents out right now, the cast for Waves is truly stellar. Harrison is one of the brightest young actors of his generation and his having a banner year with both this film and his standout performance in Luce. He is excellent here and is proving yet again why everyone needs to pay attention to what he’s doing in these projects. Russell, most known for the Netflix series Lost in Space, is a quiet revelation here. There may not be a more hushed, yet supremely effective performance this year.

The most powerful scene in the entire film is one that takes place in the bathroom between Tyler and Emily. Raw and emotional, it is a masterclass for both Harrison and Russell. And for the other actors, Demie, a two or three steps off from her Euphoria character, Maddy, is solid. As the parental unit, Goldsberry and Brown are fantastic, with the latter fully deserving of Supporting Actor Oscar buzz.

The story is not neatly tied up with a bow — but on purpose?

While the film is on a steady track during the first two acts, the third takes the movie on a different path. The story is not as tightly wound as the rest of the film, but with Russell as the anchor, she brings it on home.

Taylor Russell in 'Waves'
Taylor Russell in ‘Waves’ | A24

But just because the final third of the film is different from the other two, does that take away from the film? Not necessarily, in fact, it seems to be a part of its charm. Through Waves, as we learn more and more about the state of the Williams family the more the main message of the film comes into shape. Due to the film’s tragic events, it’s no way that the family would come out unscathed, and it would take a lot of work to even put the pieces back together. Therefore, this concept of forgiveness in the film is abstract and it doesn’t look neat. This means that the conclusion of the film should mirror that.

Everything at the end of the film isn’t tidily wrapped, but like the film itself, it shows that there isn’t a clear answer or path forward, but it’s the steps that you take that matter in the end.

Waves hits select theaters beginning Nov. 15, 2019.