Intimate, evocative and lurid, “Waves” captures the heat of youth and the fog one family navigates through as parents try to guide two teens to adulthood in Greater Miami.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults, in a major departure from his best known work, the Aussie apocalypse horror tale “It Comes at Night,” tells this story in densely saturated colors, with a swirling camera, seamless stream-of-conscience editing and a soundtrack — music sung along to, voices muffled, then brought into focus — to match.
The melodramatic first two acts play out pro forma, predictably but with intense feeling as Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an upper middle class high school senior who wrestles, plays a little piano and loves on his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and endures the loving but judgmental glower of his “We are not AFFORDED to the luxury of being ‘average'” father (Sterling K. Brown).
But “predictable” goes out the window with a third act that feels more like an overlong epilogue, taking the story from its climax and beyond, meandering into grace notes that point to how people go on and grow after a life-shattering event.
Tyler’s training regimen at school is rigorous enough. It’s when he gets home that “that extra mile” is covered. His taskmaster dad puts him through more reps in their home gym, and a post-match debriefing and coaching on the mat he’s laid out in the garage.
Homework? That comes next. And yet he has time for Alexis and tomfoolery with his friends after all that. The illusion of it all, the thin margin the kid is working with, is hinted at in his careless driving, rambunctious sing-alongs with his boys or Alexis, a camera spinning between them capturing joy, harmless fun and a lot of unbelted seatbelts.
That margin of error evaporates in ways we can see coming, even if a car wreck isn’t one of them. And the “push through it” pressure Tyler is living under means there’s no communication with his family when the wheels start to come off — an injury here, a girfriend crisis there.
Sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is all but ignored until Taylor’s crisis comes to a head. We then get to watch her sort her own life out and face the same stark choices he did as she finds a beau (Lucas Hedges) and the life-altering temptations of teenagers all over America. Will she make better choices?
The young players shine, ably getting across the emotional confusion of youth, the impulsiveness, and the stubborn unwillingness to communite with their elders. These are buttoned-down performances with flashes of temper, regret and guilt.
But it is Brown, of TV’s “This is Us,” who pops off the screen, pop-eyed in intensity, full of life lessons, directions and heavyweight parenting. He revels in the weightlifting bonding (with mirrors to peacock in front of) with his boy, stares at him with an unnerving focus. This is “toxic masculinity” with a loving touch. Ronald runs the family construction company, and whatever he and wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) agree on financial and childrearing matters, he is hellbent on raising a young MAN.
An opening credit — Damien Van Der Cruyssen is “colorist” on “Waves” — speaks volumes about Shults’ stylistic intentions here. He’s borrowed Harmony Korine’s production designer from “Spring Breakers” and put Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in charge of the score. The screen size changes aspect ratios as hypersaturated blues tint interiors, with neon-colored parties and grey overcast afternoons evoking the grim discipline of training.
It’s all a bit much, as the picture’s two halves are in no way equal, and the post climax scenes, reaching for “healing,” tend to soften the film’s blows. The emotions stick, but feel rather flat after the tension and release of the opening scenes.
That robs “Waves” of the gut punch we feel coming, even after the anti-climax has slow-walked out of the gate.
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges and Sterling K. Brown.
Credits: Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. An A24 release.
Running time: 2:15