Reel Reviews | Waves

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Kelvin Harrison Jr continues to prove his place in the upper echelon of this new generation of actors in the emotional journey, Waves.

This is a story about a family and the waves of life that buffet them.  Tyler (Kelvin Harrison) is a high school senior.  He is a star on the wrestling team, has a loving girlfriend and is one of the most popular students in the school.  His father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), pushes him, sometimes harshly, to be great, much to the chagrin, and sometimes horror, of Tyler’s stepmother, Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry).

Emily (Taylor Russell) is Tyler’s younger sister.  She attends the same school as her brother and live mostly in the shadows.  She has her group of friends but nothing like her brother.  They move in a lot of the same circles, but she pales in the light of her brother.  Eventually, the brighter light burns out as Tyler is hit by wave after wave of turmoil.  The resulting severe trauma to the whole family can only be resolved through the life of Emily.

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults (It Comes At Night, Krisha) Waves stars Harrison, Brown, Goldsberry, and Russell and Lucas Hedges.  It is a tale of two tales with an aggressive, powerful and emotionally draining first half that is contrasted by a soft relaxing and restorative second part. Together the parts make a story that is deeply controversial and complex.

The complexity, while initiated by the script, is only coming to life through the fantastic work of the actors portraying their roles.  Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is the true force in this film, tapping into an energy that was only glimpsed in his previous project, Luce.  He is a tropical storm of emotion from his first appearance that grows into a category 5 hurricane by the climax of his half of the film.  A wonder to behold.

Kelvin is the best part of the movies is also the worst.  The problem with the movie is that while Taylor Russell is endearing and charming her half of the film is lackluster in comparison to the first half.  Taylor Russell is tender and the story surrounding her character Emily is lyrical and sweet and is the impetus for resolution and healing for the family and the film.  Shults has previously worked with Terence Malick and much of the cinematography of Emily’s half of the film resembles the look of some of Malick’s work in Tree of Life.

Rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens, Waves is a bi-polar, cinematic masterclass.  It is a punk rock mosh pit followed by Swan Lake both beautiful and a wonder to behold.  However, one overshadows the other and makes it hard for the audience to just sit and watch it unfold. 

Grade:  C+