Telluride Film Festival Review: Waves will leave you speechless.
Every year at every major film festival, a film comes out of nowhere that ends up taking critics and audiences by storm. This year at the Telluride Film Festival that film was Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. I first discovered the work of Trey Edward Shults at SXSW in 2015 when his first feature film Krisha won the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award. Krisha was a solid directorial debut and one that sparked my interest in Shults as a filmmaker.
I walked into Waves not knowing much about it and was not mentally or physically prepared for what I was about to see. Waves is a complex family drama that takes a look into the lives of the Williams, a seemingly normal middle-class family living in Florida. Broken into two distinct chapters, the first half of Waves focuses on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a high school senior whose future looks very bright. The second half follows Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) who is struggling to find her place in the world as she begins a new relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges). These two chapters are very powerful in their own way but when combined they create something truly unforgettable.
For the first hour of the film, we as viewers get to see what it is like to be Tyler Williams. On the surface, Tyler seems to have it all including a promising wrestling career and a loving girlfriend. However, Tyler’s father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is constantly judging him and pushing him to be better. Ronald believes that Tyler has to work ten times harder to get anywhere due to his skin color. Feeling this kind of pressure proves to be very difficult for Tyler to endure but he tries his best to live up to his father’s harsh expectations.
Tyler, now in his senior year of high school, receives some bad news about a recent injury that could change his plans for the future. This unexpected news makes Tyler feel even more isolated than he is already feeling. If Tyler’s life can’t get any worse, a recent discovery about his girlfriend Alexis only adds to the pain and heartache that he is feeling. As the tension within Tyler continues to rise throughout the first hour, he begins to spiral out of control.
The second half of Waves is vastly different from the first in almost every way. These two chapters can be best described as a before and after photo. Emily unlike Tyler isn’t pressured by her father and has been living in his shadow. She is now struggling to process what has happened to her brother and how her family has changed as a result of Tyler’s actions. At school, Emily walks around quietly as she keeps a distance from many of her peers.
As Emily struggles to process everything that has recently happened in her life, she is approached by the kind yet awkward Luke. Emily and Luke hit it off almost immediately and seem like kindred spirits. Because of this Emily begins grows as a person and starts to move past her family’s tragic past. She even manages to convince Luke to put his hatred aside for a dying family member.
As you can probably tell Waves is a film that embraces a lot of topics that are intertwined in a bold and powerful family drama. This is a story about love, hate, life, family, forgiveness, and discovery. It is deeply profound and moving as it constantly challenges the viewer to think about what is happening and why it is happening. Waves offers plenty of social commentary but at its core, it is a complicated love story.
As someone who watches over 250 films a year, there hasn’t been a film in recent memory where I can honestly say that every single cast member is as good as the cast of Waves. Every single actor in this film, no matter how big or small their role is, seems to have poured their heart and soul into this project. I don’t know how Shults was able to assemble such a perfect cast because this film features some of the best acting that I have seen all year.
Kelvin Harrison Jr, who blew me away with his performance in Luce earlier this year, is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors. Tyler is a complicated role to play but Harrison Jr. makes it seem so incredibly easy. I feel like there is so much going on within his performance because the character is dealing with so much. There aren’t a lot of young actors who can pull off the complexity of Tyler, therefore, making Harrison Jr. that much more spectacular as an actor. This is truly a performance that has been seen to be believed.
Sterling K. Brown is a treasure. Like most of the world, I became a big fan of his after his role as Randall Pierce of This is Us. With each new role that he takes on, Brown continues to impress me more and more. However, he is just so freaking good in this film delivering what I think is his best performance to date. The character of Ronald is not a bad guy but someone who is incredibly flawed. He thinks he is helping his son by pushing him to be better but instead he is only causing him pain and frustration. Meanwhile, Ronald’s daughter feels completely neglected until his wife, Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) makes him aware of it.
Speaking of Renée Elise Goldsberry, she embraces the role of Catherine, a loving and supporting wife, and mother that isn’t afraid to speak up and tell it like it is. She is very much the glue that holds the family together and you can tell through her powerful and emotional performance that she keeps on fighting even when the cards are stacked against her. There is one scene where she fights with Ronald after the events that occur with Tyler. The level of purity at this moment is second to none.
Taylor Russell as Emily offers such a sincere and grounded performance. You can tell that she is in pain but unlike her brother or her mom and dad, she keeps to herself while trying to process things on her own. She is strong and resilient as she is able to look at the events that occurred in her past and push forward. She becomes a beacon of hope in a lot of ways because she, amongst all of her family members because she wants to move on. Russell’s take on Emily is remarkable because she manages to make this character someone easy to root for but equally compelling.
Lucas Hedges is without question one of the best young actors working today and his performance as Luke continues to prove that. Luke is very humble and genuine. While he is incredibly awkward, he is a nice guy with good intentions. Luke has had his fair share of pain and suffering in his life, but like Emily is trying to leave his troubled past behind him. His relationship with Emily is a healthy one as the two support one another. Luke offers a lot of positive energy which is something that is currently missing from Emily’s life. Hedges performance is as comedic as it is emotional.
Rounding out the cast is Alexa Demie who plays Tyler’s girlfriend Alexis. I don’t want to reveal too much about her character but Demie like the rest of this incredible cast is going places. There is a fight scene between her and Tyler in the car that was isn’t just incredibly intense but so real. The dialogue in this scene is delivered with such conviction making the viewer feel every ounce of pain, anger, and frustration that these two are feeling at this very moment.
Trey Edward Shults has shown a lot of promise as a filmmaker with his two films but Waves is a going to be the ultimate gamechanger for him as a filmmaker. After this film, I see Shults joining the ranks of filmmakers such as Barry Jenkins, Damien Chazelle, and The Safdie Brothers. His work as a writer, director, and editor proves that he is a force to be reckoned with. He uses color in such a remarkable way that it adds a whole another layer to this story.
As a filmmaker, Shults makes a lot of bold choices and isn’t afraid of taking risks. The 360-degree scenes in the car are disorienting yet brilliant to watch. Every fight scene is perfectly captured to make the audience feel the same level of intensity that the characters are feeling at the moment. However, the most powerful scenes are the smaller intimate moments such as a scene between Tyler crying in the bathtub while his sister Emily hugs him. It is moments like that one that speak so loudly.
After its premiere at Telluride, Waves became the most talked-about film of the festival. It is a masterpiece in every sense of the word and one that is sure to be a major player this award season. With remnants of Moonlight, Luce, and American Honey sprinkled throughout, Trey Edward Shults pays tribute to great independent films and filmmakers while also bringing to life an unforgettable story of his own that will leave a long-lasting impact on anyone who sees it. Waves is an extraordinary work of art and will be hard to top as one of the absolute best films of the year.