Review: ‘Waves’: an intense and heartbreaking ride

Nia Beckett, news correspondent

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Repeatedly whirling around in a car of smiling teens, the opening shot of A24’s latest drama “Waves” — and most of what follows — quickly becomes disconcerting and overwhelming.

Set in sunny South Florida, “Waves” depicts Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school student-athlete facing the pressures of school, wrestling and his relationships with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) and his family. His father, Ronald, (Sterling K. Brown) pushes him to perform well in everything he does with the reminder that they, as black people, have to work ten times as hard to succeed. While Ronald’s expectations are well-meaning, they only add to Tyler’s stress and strain communication between the pair. The hot-headed and self-destructive teen struggles to cope as viewers, and eventually his family, helplessly watch him spiral into a series of progressively worse decisions that climax in a jarring shot.

Most striking about “Waves” is the camerawork, which documents its characters with intimate movements and angles and leaves viewers with ominous pits in their stomachs at every turn. 

The music only heightens the feeling of impending doom, often shifting to a more sinister sound as the camera settles on Tyler. Other stylistic choices, however, like the abstract colorful transitions between scenes, are simply distracting.

Once Tyler’s choices inevitably hit the fan, the second half of the film switches gears entirely to his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) in the aftermath of his demise. A meet-cute with adorkable classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges) blossoms over time into her first relationship. Shared familial troubles deepen the pair’s connection. While the second half is a sweet and playful departure from the first, Emily and her parents are left to deal with the fragmented bonds of their family.

“Waves” is a safe space for black men to cry — and there’s plenty to cry about. The meaning of the title is not lost on viewers as the film hurls them into a heart-wrenching, anxiety-inducing emotional roller coaster.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults was purposeful in the emotional havoc he wreaked. The trailer glosses over fast shots of angry characters and flashing police lights with hopeful music and Ronald’s preacher-esque words: “All we have is now.” In turn, it does little to prepare viewers for the stress it sets out to cause. “Waves” was beautifully constructed, but be warned: it’s a heart-wrenching ride.