In the opening moments of Waves – the hypnotic new family drama from writer-director Trey Edward Shults – the camera turns in a perfect circle on the dashboard of a car as a young couple dance and sing to the music pulsating through their stereo, bathed in beating sunlight. It’s an evocative opening for an intricate, beautiful movie that weaves music into every stitch of its broad tapestry, depicting an African American family facing some seriously difficult circumstances.
At the centre of those circumstances is amateur wrestling prodigy Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who is being groomed for success by his driven father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), despite a lingering shoulder injury that threatens to curdle his career. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) receives some personal news that further complicates the situation for Tyler.
All of this unraveling is portrayed delightfully by Harrison Jr, who was also at the heart of Shults’ previous film – the cold, terrifying horror tale It Comes at Night. It’s a performance of impressive physicality, with scenes of Tyler and his father working out illuminating the performative, fragile masculinity at the heart of their complex relationship. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” says Brown’s character, explaining his desire to push his son to success, despite the way society still holds black people back from reaching their potential.
The genius of Waves is not only in its portrait of a family in the face of adversity but in the way Shults tells that story. This isn’t a short film, running well over two hours, but it utilises every moment to perfection in snapping the audience right into the heart of its world. Cinematographer Drew Daniels’ camera is ceaselessly dynamic, hovering and swirling around the action – particularly in the sweaty, intense wrestling scenes – while the joins between the jukebox soundtrack and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score are so smooth as to be almost invisible.
That music provides Waves with a great deal of its potency. The film is so deeply infected with rhythm that it feels like a musical at times, in a similar way to Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. A haunting rendition of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Love is a Losing Game’ segues almost immediately into Kanye West’s ‘I Am a God’ as a prelude to a sequence so sudden and abrupt that Shults cuts to black for what feels like minutes, allowing the audience to feel the Earth moving beneath these characters as their world shifts on to a whole new axis.
Shults is evidently interested in how life morphs and reforms, navigating the inscrutable ways in which the world moves from one event to the next. The frame is frequently filled with amorphous, colourful blobs which seem to toggle in and out of focus, as if uncertain which shape they will finally take – like a roulette wheel of potential story threads. Waves is a movie that delights in its squirming tonal spectrum, shifting imperceptibly from one perspective as the final third puts the focus on Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and her romcom-esque flirtation with classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges) – an oasis of silliness amid a dark and unforgiving descent into hard-edged drama.
The film belongs to Harrison Jr in its first half and to the luminous Russell in its second, but the supporting performances are consistent in their ability to anchor what is often a freewheeling narrative. Brown is the pick of the bunch as, in Ronald, an avatar for the old world ideal of a man who provides for and protects his family. He’s a man whose entire self-worth is defined by the status of his family and, as a result, the movie’s events send him into a compelling tailspin of emotions you sense he might not have allowed himself to access before, conveyed brilliantly by Brown. On the one hand, there’s the physicality of his musclebound body, but it’s contrasted with sensitive scenes of palpable emotional fragility.
And that’s what can be felt most keenly through Waves – emotional intelligence and intensity. Shults has crafted an exquisite film about the split-second decisions that can define a lifetime, packed to the brim with exceptional performances and a musical score that accentuates every beat like a perfectly choreographed dance routine. It’s very special indeed.
Dir: Trey Edward Shults
Scr: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges, Clifton Collins Jr.
Prd: Trey Edward Shults, Kevin Turen, James Wilson
DOP: Drew Daniels
Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Run time: 135 mins
Waves is screening as part of the BFI London Film Festival and will release in UK cinemas on 17th January 2020.