Waves Review: An Emotional, Cathartic Sprawling Family Drama

Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry in Waves
Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry in Waves

Waves tells the equally joyous and tragic story of one family with great tenderness, but with a sometimes too aggressively raucous and chaotic style.

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults (It Comes At Night), Waves takes on the formidable task of telling an epic narrative about one suburban family as they experience extreme highs and lows, and how they attempt to navigate their world both individually and together. Complicated family dynamics are a theme of Shults' work, with the filmmaker tackling such subjects in both his feature-length directorial debut Krisha and the horror film It Comes At Night. In Waves, Shults demonstrates a deft hand in portraying the inner workings of a family and the individual members of that family, taking the narrative in surprising directions, and invoking a deep catharsis. Waves tells the equally joyous and tragic story of one family with great tenderness, but with a sometimes too aggressively raucous and chaotic style.

Waves follows high school senior Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), whose life takes a difficult turn when he's found to have an injury that will majorly impact his wrestling career. The news sends him on a path of destruction, causing trouble between him and his family - including his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), step-mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) - as well as between him and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). Meanwhile, Emily is growing up and forms a strong bond with a boy on Tyler's wrestling team, Luke (Lucas Hedges). But when a tragic loss forces a rift in the family, it remains to be seen how each member will handle the events, and whether they'll be able to recover - both as individuals and as a family.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie in Waves
Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie in Waves

Waves' sprawling story splits the film's perspective between Tyler and Emily, with Ronald and Catharine serving as supporting players in their children's lives, but their own struggles as a couple serve as an emotional backdrop in the film. The harmony of the film's wide scope and its more intimate moments is commendable, with Shults' script excellently balancing a larger story arc for the Williams family alongside smaller and smaller arcs for the varying family members - and even the people they surround themselves with, such as Luke and Alexis. The split between perspectives comes across a bit disjointed at first, and the pacing of Waves varies wildly between fast-paced montages and drawn out character moments, giving the movie a bit of an uneven feel. However, as much as these elements could leave audiences feeling muddled, that appears to be part of Shults' plan to immerse viewers in the lives of the Williams family.

Shults' directing, and Drew Daniels' cinematography, further gives Waves some stunning visuals, like the opening sequence of the camera spinning around inside Tyler's car as he and Alexa cruise across a bridge blasting an anthemic music track. But for as many beautifully executed shots - like another of two of the teenagers running through sprinklers at night, the water causing bokeh-style lighting effects - there are those that are uncomfortably chaotic. Shults uses these to reflect the tone of certain sequences, managing to evoke strong, raw emotional reactions from the audience. On top of these shots is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score, which is at times aggressively discordant. But again, it shows incredible skill in both reflecting and evoking the pathos of each and every scene. The direction, cinematography and music come together to form a unique movie experience in Waves, one that's equally immersive, uncomfortable and stunningly brought to life.

Sterling K. Brown in Waves
Sterling K. Brown in Waves

In addition to the technical aspects of Waves, it's the film's exceptionally talented cast who truly infuse the story with its humanity. Waves is beautifully acted, particularly by Harrison Jr., Russell and Brown, while Goldsberry has the smallest role of the Williams family members. Harrison Jr. brings a necessary vulnerability to Tyler as the character descends into the trappings of toxic masculinity, while Brown, in his supporting role, showcases how even an empathetic father with the best of intentions can feed his own son's worst decisions. Their storyline is contrasted well by Russell's, which brings much-needed catharsis to Waves. The young actress is formidable in the role and helps lead an altogether fantastic cast of performers. Hedges, too, brings a sweetness to his role as Luke that further contrasts Harrison Jr. and Brown's performances.

Produced and distributed by A24, Waves falls into the studio's category of films that tell stories not often seen in Hollywood. As such, those interested by A24's films, or those curious about the developing auteur Shults, would do well with checking out Waves. The film is certainly an unparalleled moviegoing experience, so those looking from some counter-programming to big budget blockbuster releases may also find Waves worth a viewing. Ultimately, Waves manages to portray the real lives of its character with a genuine, if merciless, truthfulness rarely seen in film.


Waves starts playing in select U.S. theaters on Friday November 15th. It is 135 minutes long and rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence - all involving teens.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comments section!

Our Rating:

4 out of 5 (Excellent)
Harry Potter Star Doubts Cast Will Return In New Movie

More in Movie Reviews