Waves came out of nowhere at Telluride Film Festival and has continued to stun every audience since its premiere. Directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves follows the turbulent lives of an African American family as their dynamic evolves and changes. Divided into two distinctive halves, the first follows Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The only son in the family and all-star athlete, his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) constantly pushes him toward success and hard work to rise above the stereotypes society places on them. As Tyler’s life begins to unravel, a grave mistake and accident bring an abrupt halt to his daily life and his family’s as well. This is where the second half of the film kicks in as we get to focus on the rest of the family, in particular, his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). As the family navigates what their lives have become, Taylor must pick up the pieces and let go of her anger. Through her new relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges), she finds happiness and peace.
The two distinct halves of the film are very different in tone. The first is building tension and high stress throughout. The suspense of the story culminates in a big way and we are left in the wake. Once left with what happened in the first half, we are allowed to breathe in the second half which while lighter, isn’t without its emotional heft and scars from the first half. It is more hopeful and more reflective, allowing the audience to feel the emotional trauma of the first half but learning, like the rest of the characters, that life must go on.
Waves is really unlike anything I’ve seen. Not only are the performances phenomenal but the entire film plays like a masterpiece. Shults uses color and music to enhance the motion and pull of the film without being overbearing. While those moments are somewhat disorienting, they allow for a brief pause to analyze what you’ve seen and hone in on the sounds and anticipation of what is to come. Shults has made a mark with this film.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. gives yet another powerhouse performance as Tyler. The scenes he shared with Sterling K. Brown are high-strung and pulsating with strain. We see a transformation in him that is both terrifying and in a way, completely relatable. It can’t be stressed enough that his toughest scenes to watch are some of the best acting we’ve seen from a young actor this year. Taylor Russell comes out of the fringes during the second half and we get beautiful scenes filled with joy and love but also with sorrow for the life she’s lost.
What is miraculous about the writing of the film is that Shults gives us fully developed characters, not just focusing on the younger cast. We get in-depth characters with the parents played by Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry. We see the rift in their relationship begin with subtle glances and get a culminating argument that lays out their emotions. They have solid chemistry that feels authentic. Lucas Hedges as Luke continues to bring powerful performances to every role he tackles. He and Taylor embark on a trying journey together and he handles the goofy awkward teens and the heartbreaking young man with ease. He is the epitome of a true artist.
What is phenomenal about Waves is that each individual scene, which can play like tiny vignettes, are perfect illustrations of the genius of the film. Whether it is Emily and Luke laughing and joking about something or the heated argument between Taylor and his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), Shults and the wildly talented actors have managed to capture life and human emotion that is very rarely done in such a beautiful way. Waves is undoubtedly a masterpiece and is destined to make a lasting impact on the world of film and storytelling. An Oscar-worthy cast and a beautifully directed film make Waves easily the best film of Telluride 2019 and a big disruptor in the potential Oscar conversation.