'Waves' Review: An Ambitious Saga Of A Family Crumbling Before Our Eyes [TIFF 2019]

Few filmmakers working today know how to induce anxiety in their audience as masterfully as Trey Edward Shults. Even during scenes when things technically aren't going wrong, Shults's focus creates a palpable sense of dread. Yes, everything might be fine on screen for now...but it's only a matter of time before some sort of Sword of Damocles drops and shatters everything, and everyone, to a million pieces.

Shults gave us the cinematic panic attack that was Krisha and the slow-burn post-apocalyptic horror-family-drama It Comes At Night. With Waves, the director has crafted his most ambitious film to date – a dizzying, weighty, heart-wrenching saga of one family disintegrating right before our eyes.

The first thing one notices about Waves is the downright woozy cinematography. Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels set the stage with a series of swooping, spinning, flipping shots, introducing us to the characters we're about to spend a considerable amount of time with. With these off-kilter moments – rendered gorgeously against Florida skies that are somehow both always sunny and always pregnant with violent clouds blooming lightning – Waves is preparing us for the instability to come.

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school wrestling champ living a comfortable-looking life with his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), step-mother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell). The family appears happy, but looks can be deceiving. Ronald has a competitive streak coupled with a never-ending drive to push his son to the limits, and beyond. Shults's script never explicitly spells out racial undertones, but when Ronald sternly reminds his son that they have to "try ten times as hard" just to get by while other people can take it easy, the implications are clear.

And Tyler doesn't want to disappoint, so he continues to wrestle even after he suffers a serious shoulder injury. It's nothing a heavy dose of painkillers can't fix, right? As if the shoulder pain wasn't bad enough, Tyler also finds himself in the midst of a crisis involving his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). When we first meet these young lovers, they seem crazy in love, full of raw, unbridled, wild passion. But an unexpected situation threatens to tear their relationship apart, and Tyler doesn't take this very well.

Harrison has some heavy emotional weight to lift here, and he carries the first half of the film on his shoulders with both grace and power. He plays Tyler as all simmering anger and confusion – a pressure-cooker just waiting to explode. And when that happens, you don't want to be in the vicinity. Director Shults lets things build, and build, and build. The gleeful early scenes of young-love start to curdle all as Tyler's relationship with his father becomes sour. Brown does wonders with his somewhat small part, finding a way to make Ronald both demanding but also clearly loving. He's not a bad father – he just wants to make damn sure his kids have a better life.

Just when you think you have Waves figured out, Shults performs a magic trick, pulling a completely different movie out of a hat. The narrative shifts focus to Tyler's sister Emily as she struggles to fit in in the wake of a tragic event. Tyler's scenes are full of macho bravado as the young athlete pushes himself to the limits. The section of the film focused on Emily is more quiet, more introspective. And kinder. The Tyler section often feels like a sequel to Shults's Krisha, which focused on a family outcast on the brink of destroying a Thanksgiving get-together. Like that film, Waves spends a considerable amount of its runtime making the audience feel an ever-present sense of impending doom. The dread is so thick it's practically visible, all of it heightened by a booming soundtrack and a haunting score courtesy of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

But when Emily takes over, Waves shows a shocking level of empathy. Emily begins a relationship with the extremely odd-but-likable Luke (played with affable charm by Lucas Hedges, who apparently is required by law to be in every indie movie focused on young people). Where the romance between Tyler and Alexis burns with all-consuming, potentially dangerous fire, the attraction between Emily and Luke is sweeter; softer; clumsier. They seem so utterly different, but that's part of the charm. Russell is phenomenal as Emily, radiating goodness while carrying around a hefty-dose of self-doubt. As Waves ebbs and flows from one emotionally devastating moment to the next, Emily remains the heart and soul of it all. She pushes the characters around her to be kinder and to be better people overall. We could all use someone like her in our often harsh lives.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10