FOUR STARS Tragedy hits a family when their teenage boy discovers his girlfriend is pregnant.
Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jnr
Routine family dramas are seldom so unusual or so topical as this compelling debut from writer/director Trey Edward Shults.
At its core, WAVES is nothing you haven’t seen before (or drifted past while browsing your streamer’s menu): a family navigates turmoil when a talented son/daughter/sibling makes a poor choice that leads to tragedy. They rise to the challenge and romance beckons. It’s the backbone of every Hallmark movie. The difference here is in the way in which Shults dresses his story, presents the story, tells the story and forces the story under your skin. He is surprisingly effective.
Tyler is a talented teenager, his game is wrestling and he’s a rising star. His stern father is determined to keep the boy focussed but misadventure throws that effort to the kerb when Tyler’s girlfriend misses a period. Arguments follow and tragedy is hard on their heels. Yet this isn’t just the story of teenage cockup, it’s how the consequence of his choices affect the whole family, notably his younger sister in the film’s second act.
What marks WAVES from the ordinary is that drugs, guns, welfare, hip-hop and addiction aren’t a factor in these black lives. Tyler’s parents are prosperous, they live in a large home. Dad’s stern but he’s not violent. Stereotypes have no traction here and it’s a wonderfully refreshing change. What’s also refreshing is WAVES' visual, and notably audio, styling. Music-video sensibility pervades the experience which make sense of how Shults propels the story organically through music. He hasn’t cheated with a bolt-on soundtrack, every song and theme has been carefully, thoughtfully placed. Again, it’s wonderfully refreshing.
And that’s makes WAVES so compelling - Shults doesn’t cut corners in his determination to make the familiar fresh and exhilarating. He turns everything on its head: his comfortably well off family are black, not white. Drugs and sex touch the story, they don’t drive it. The father is dominant, but also cries. The family isn’t ruined by tragedy, they learn from it.
He then backs this in with those flourishes that borrow as much from arthouse as they do music-videos. The result is a film with the power to comfort and surprise in fresh and familiar ways while exploring the emotional ledger of guilt and redemption. Let it get under your skin, don't drift past WAVES.