It’s a curious thing, emotion. We mask it when we’re down, we express it when we’re up, and Trey Edward Schults taps right into it while we’re not aware of it.
He got us addicted to it in “Krisha,” he scared us with “It Comes at Night” and now, in “Waves,” his third film, he pushes and pulls our emotions like the tide of the ocean crashing on the sunny beaches that adorn Miami.
At its center, “Waves” is about the dysfunctional Williams family.
Shults, who wrote the screenplay, develops a dynamic character in Kelvin Harrison Jr’s Tyler. The opening frame is set in Tyler’s pick-up truck, the sun blazing with an elated Tyler and his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). Drew Daniels’s camerawork is omnipresent from this opening frame drawing us into their relationship and their carefree world.
Tyler’s happy-go-lucky euphoria contrasts with the demands of his family life: a father, Ronald who is constantly pushing his son to be a better version of himself. Sterling K. Brown plays Ronald with a quiet fierceness as he reminds his son about the opportunities he missed or didn’t have, that his son now does. Ronald is a man of principle and a man of faith, from his upbringing.
The family dynamic is presented early on through a church sermon followed by breakfast. Tyler and Ronald are competitive; Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is quiet, letting the boys be boys while gently reminding them that that there’s too much testosterone at the table. Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) remains quiet throughout, answering when she is asked a question. There is an air of defiance about her though as she sticks up for Tyler when Ronald gives him a ribbing. She relents just as quickly.
There’s a sense from this scene alone that the father-son dynamic is as strong as two teenagers competing in the wrestling octagon. Catharine has just enough clout to interject that Tyler needs to have his shoulder looked at; something that father and son both dismiss.
These early scenes that form the family dynamic begin to build on an emotional undercurrent as Tyler’s life turns upside down. The constant barrage of sight and sound key in on our own emotions, making us a part of Tyler’s descent into madness with cinematographer Drew Daniels’s shifting aspect ratio framing the intimacy or the largesse of Tyler’s reaction and family members trying to intervene.
Harrison’s performance as a rough and tumble kid on the verge of losing control is exceptional. Brown matches Harrison’s pacing, similar to two titans defending a mystical crown. If I didn’t know any better, it was a gladiatorial pissing contest with a grand intimacy of emotion wrapping everything up and both of them play right into it with force and fury.
At the film’s center, the waves crest, but the underlying dramatic conflict remains as the family picks up the pieces. There’s a not-so-subtle shift when Tyler’s journey shifts into Emily’s. Shults leaves Emily alone for the first act as the disconnected daughter.
There is a moment where Tyler suffers a breakdown so badly that Emily comes to his support, cradling him. The raw emotions between Russell and Harrison push through just enough to see that Emily cares, giving us just enough to know that Emily is aware of the pain he is enduring, but she is helpless to assuage his struggle.
Emily’s helplessness transforms and empowers her in the second act as she is left to pick up the pieces of two parents who stop communicating. We see her social life struggling, but where Tyler’s life fell apart, she makes the connections to ensure that those closest to her feel loved. Taylor Russell’s performance here is one of shyness, but also of determination.
That is until she meets Lucas Hedges’s Luke.
There is a gentle awkwardness about the foundation of Emily’s relationship with Luke, which slowly builds into trust. Comparatively, Tyler’s relationship crashes because of a different kind of awkwardness.
Interestingly, Schults’s injection of social awkwardness plays into the metaphorical wave of emotions; Tyler’s downfall is akin to a riptide and Emily’s peak is a gentle swell. Harrison’s gusto feeds off the emotions while Russell takes in the emotions and uses it to build herself up. This is as much an effect of Shults’ directing and the expressiveness that defines his characters as much as it is in the performances.
The most powerful moment doesn’t come through anger, but of realization in a moment of calmness. Set in a thick glade, father and daughter set out to fish together. The air is calm, the sun is out; there is serenity. Brown’s emotions well up to the surface as he describes his feelings to his daughter and Emily, again in a role of emotional support and this time on the downward slide, cradles her father, assuring him that the wrongs of the past can be righted.
Before the world can be completely calm again, Emily must support Luke through a tough time in his life. This builds up her courage to take a stand and Russell runs with it. Hedges, who emotes from every orifice he has is having a knock-out year. Here his impishness is dialed back, allowing Russell to stand out. Russell, who impressed earlier this year in “Escape Room” is someone to watch; Hedges’s restraint here shows a welcome range, but his performance in “Honey Boy” shouldn’t be missed either.
“Waves” beautifully captures the emotional pressures we put on one another through romance and tragedy. Trey Edward Shults taps into our emotional psyche with an astute technical hand on his craft, leveraging subtlety to build a blanket of emotion, carrying characters well beyond their limits.