Rising director Trey Edward Shults pushes himself stylistically further with his new film Waves. He attempts so much here in an attempt to tell a sprawling family drama about the damages and repairs of a family unit. He does so with a vivid visual style that swirls images of pain and hope into something unique. However, the cumulative power of Waves feels somewhat out of balance.
The first hour or so builds upon Shults' horror foundations. Much like his outstanding debut, he puts us in the increasingly unstable mindset of a character who is spiraling towards self-destruction. Tyler, a breakout performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is the son of the central African-American family at the film's core. He is a high school wrestling champion who is trying his best to live up to his father's (Sterling K. Brown) demands. His father tells him "We don't have the luxury of being average" This is what drives him to be so hard on Tyler. His stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) tries to be supportive but Tyler struggles to accept her. Tyler feels immense pressure to be the best and his only respite is Alexis (Alexis Demie), a classmate whom he adores.
The first half builds confidently to a breaking point as Tyler cracks under the pressure and losses control of his pain killer addiction. Cinematographer Drew Daniels's shifts tone to a menacing state, putting the audience in Tyler's headspace. In one act, Tyler's world is changed forever and the ripples of his actions begin to affect his family. This is when the film shifts to Tyler's sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Russell delivers the film's second break-out performance. She is truly captivating and offers the balance to the film's bleak first half.
Emily begins a relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges). Their relationship becomes the focus of the second, less effective half of the film. The main problem is that the film decides to move away from the fallout of Tyler's actions on his family to focus on Luke's family problems. They are less interesting and frankly less unique than following a well-off black family dealing with tragedy. Far too much time is given to Luke trying to heal his relationship with an abusive father and the film can't recover from it. Still, Russell shines through and gives a soulful performance.
Waves will hopefully earn some acting nominations. Shults gets the best out of every actor here. The film is bold and complex with a style that confirms how unique of a filmmaker Shults is. However, the story wavers and doesn't end up making the impact it could have.