In Waves, a family unit is its own delicate ecosystem, and any imbalance can have massive ripple effects. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr in his second and more explosive star-making lead role this year) is a high school wrestler with a lot on his plate. His father (Sterling K. Brown, with a wild-eyed intensity) demands excellence from him in every regard — sports, school, church, and his part-time job. He’s nursing a lingering shoulder injury that only seems to be getting worse, and he relies on painkillers more and more to maintain his ability to perform athletically. He’s in love with his girlfriend Alexis, but their relationship is on the verge of evolving in unexpected and unwanted ways. It’s a lot of pressure to place on an 18-year-old. Indeed, it seems that his aggravated muscle injury is as much a result of the intense emotional weight placed on his shoulders as it from overexertion.

There are a lot of films that begin in a similar vein: an overzealous father is hellbent on living vicariously through his son’s high school athletic career, the child is forced to carve out a life for himself that is not entirely bound to the dreams of his father. But Waves manages to subvert expectations at every turn. It is a family drama, to be sure, just not the one the audience was perhaps anticipating. Waves doesn’t just explore the fraught relationship between father and son, but a family grieving a loss that for manifold reasons they don’t feel able to properly mourn, and a frequently overlooked sibling coming alive under the most dire circumstances.

Director Trey Edward Shults has a bold and confident style that will mesmerize audiences. His visual composition is gorgeous – he has created not for the first time in his career a South Florida that is lush and vibrant and heartbreakingly beautiful, even in its banality. His creativity extends most notably to the narrative structure, which will likely irritate some viewers just as it charms others. The first two-thirds of Waves is an entirely different film from the final act, and while both are incredibly compelling, the transition between the two is undeniably jarring.

Ultimately, the driving force behind Waves is the strength of its performances, especially among its young actors. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is as powerful and commanding as he becomes increasingly unhinged, and he brings a forceful vulnerability to the leading role that captivates. Taylor Russell breaks through as his younger sister Emily, a quiet girl who is overshadowed by her gifted, larger than life brother, but who is enchanting as she blossoms in the third act of the film. Sterling K. Brown seems incapable of putting in anything less than a spectacular performance lately, and this is no exception. In a fairer world, one in which actors who play true supporting roles rather than co-leads are rewarded with Oscars, he might have had a chance at major awards buzz. His work here is exemplary, as he strips himself raw and explores a different and compelling form of masculinity. And finally, there’s Lucas Hedges, one of our most intriguing young actors who has recently been making a career of taking on small but fascinating roles in prestigious indie projects.

Waves was an unexpected hit at Telluride last year, and it seems as though the less you know going about the film going into it, the greater its emotional impact. It isn’t a film that’s going to connect with everyone — some people will be thrown off by the unique and self-aware visual style, others will feel wrong-footed by the sudden change in perspective as the film progresses. But if it works for you, it’s going to cut deep. And really, that’s all we can hope for from our young, up-and-coming directors: a swing for the fences in an attempt to make a connection with someone, even if it doesn’t enchant everyone equally.

Rating: ★★★★


Directed by: Trey Edward Shults

Written by: Trey Edward Shults

Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie