“I will not be taken down, I am a new machine!’ says aspiring athlete Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr) in this brutal yet lyrical drama from Trey Edward Shults for the A24 imprint. The writer/director’s follow-up to It Comes At Night is not typical of the A24 label, a sprawling but tightly conceived film that has lineage to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People or even the witness/victim dynamic of Amores Perros, but successfully finds its own intense voice. A curious broken-backed structure to the narrative makes it a tricky one to review, but spoilers should not be required to gain appreciation.
Waves deals with family life; Tyler is a young man with a big future, and he’s a big name on his school wrestling team. But Tyler gets bad news when he finds out he has a potentially life-changing sports injury, and simultaneously finds out that his girlfriend has missed her period. Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) try to reach out to him, but drink, drugs, peer-pressure and depression all take a toll until a moment of violence turns their lives apart and sends Tyler’s life in a different direction. a key visual motif frames Tyler looking in mirrors; the reflection never seems to match up, indicating the disconnect between how the teen sees himself and how he is.
Waves takes place amongst the well-monied set of South Florida, and although Tyler and his family appear well-off, it’s clear that they’ve had to fight for what they have. That resilience makes a difference in the film’s final act, but until then, there’s a powerful willingness to dance with the darkness of Tyler’s rage which gives it the feel of a suburban Full Metal Jacket. Brown and Harrison are both compelling as father and son out of sync, while Russell deserves her Independent Spirit nomination in a difficult role. Waves features fluent, nimble camerawork, wild, striking, hallucinogenic visuals, and also a score with Trent Reznor’s broken-fridge fingerprints all over it; the whole film pulses with light and noise.
A white man’s view of black family life is a hard sell in 2019/20, and Waves seems to have fallen between two stools as a potential awards darling. But despite the presence of the permanently shaggy Harmony Korine, Shults pulls off a film that is anything but a quirky indie, but a pumped-up evocation of modern life as a living hell. That Waves travels further than that, and attempts to look at what happens after the chickens come home to roost, is admirable, and even if awards voters didn’t fancy it, last year’s Beale Street crowd really should give Waves a look.