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‘Waves’ is an epic family drama bursting with life in all its contradictions

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 5, 2019

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in “Waves.” (A24 / A24)
Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Sterling K. Brown in “Waves.” (A24 / A24)
By Ann Hornaday Washington Post

“Waves” plunges viewers into a world of barely governable centrifugal forces: In the film’s opening scene, set within a car zipping along a South Florida causeway, the camera is in constant motion swirling and circling in ways that suggest claustrophobia and liberation, optimism and impending doom.

Which turns out to be entirely appropriate for an epic family drama that is bursting with life in all its contradictory too muchness. The character driving that car is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school senior and champion wrestler with a bright future.

For Tyler – a bright kid and star athlete from a prosperous and supportive family – the world seems to be opening before him, beckoning him to fulfill a nearly limitless potential. But with all that promise come inevitable pressures: from teachers, his coach, his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and especially his father, a stern and competitive taskmaster named Ronald (Sterling K. Brown).

“We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” Ronald tells Tyler during one of the film’s several riveting encounters between father and son. “I push you because I have to.” The subtext is clear to any African-American parent who has had to have “the talk” with their adolescent children.

The rules are different for black kids regardless of their levels of achievement. And that gives “Waves” an extra layer of foreboding as a sense of recklessness invincibility typical of most American teenagers leads Tyler closer and closer to mortal danger.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults does an admirable job of calibrating that tension, frequently bringing his characters – and audience – to a precipitous edge, then pulling back. Or not. “Waves” is as exhilarating and terrifying as the roller-coaster ride of adolescence itself, plunging viewers into a world brimming with music, color, movement and hair-trigger reflexes that feels exterior and interior at the same time.

We’re definitely in Florida with its carefree vibes and luridly seductive warmth, but we’re also burrowed deep into a prefrontal cortex that hasn’t yet mastered impulse control or executive function. Stop, we want to yell at Tyler. Think. Take a breath. If ever a movie seemed designed to make viewers step on the invisible brake on the theater seat in front of them, “Waves” is it.

How Tyler’s story turns out turns out to be shocking and preordained. But Shults makes a fascinating pivot midway through the film that lifts and expands it into something bigger, wider, deeper and more satisfying. Pulling the lens back to focus more on Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the filmmaker clearly seeks to make a movie far more structurally audacious and emotionally profound than a run-of-the-mill problem picture.

Yet again, he engages in where-will-this-end-up misdirects, investing his characters’ choices with breathtakingly high stakes. By the time Emily and a new friend (played by Lucas Hedges with just the right touch of opaqueness) take off on a road trip, we have absolutely no idea where or why they’re going, but we’re with her to the end: ride or die.

“Waves” is an unruly, strangely formed movie with a visual and sound design aimed at creating maximum disorientation in the spectator. In one of the film’s many car scenes, Shults uses a seat-belt warning beep as a tension-building counterpoint to an argument that threatens to escalate out of control.

Thankfully, the environment that Shults so meticulously constructs is inhabited by actors whose focus and seriousness of purpose cuts through the noise to create a sense of groundedness and connection.

Harrison and Russell deliver breakout performances as the spiritual heirs of characters played by James Dean, Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood; Brown – the master of the hard stare – is commanding and exasperating as the “wise and noble father” forced to confront the limits of the rules and assumptions that have allowed him to survive.

Many of those assumptions are rooted in ideas of manhood – strength, ego, vanity – that Shults subtly critiques throughout “Waves,” but never at the expense of his story’s most vivid emotional truths and youthful energy.

True to its title, “Waves” is frightening and soothing, overwhelming in its elemental force and rarely still. It’s part of a grand tradition of filmmaking in which families are the fulcrums of American tragedies and parables of resilience and hope.

Shults has found a vernacular – in his characters, setting and style – to tell a classic story that feels of the moment but also like a throwback to the great melodramas of the 1950s. The centrifugal forces may have changed over the past half-century, but, as “Waves” demonstrates so nervily, they still have the power either to force a family closer together or blow it apart.

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