As we begin to get into the thick of awards season, a lot of big, flashy movies are going to start coming our way that will at least attempt to demand our attention. Then there are slightly smaller movies that will surely deserve more of that attention, without being able to make quite as much of a splash whilst trying to get on the radar of possible moviegoers. Waves, the latest from A24 and director Trey Edward Shults, feels like one of those movies. But I'm here to tell you that this is one of the most powerful dramas of 2019 and should not be slept on. This is a deeply emotional, distinctive experience that truly sets itself apart in a number of ways.
Waves is a movie that is a little tough to describe, because setting too much of an expectation, in terms of story, can run the risk of sullying the experience. Very basically, the movie is about a family that is trying to come together and find a path forward through various struggles and hardships. The movie takes place in Southern Florida and traces a grounded, yet twist-filled emotional journey centered on a suburban African-American family. The family is led by their well-meaning but domineering father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). But things get exceedingly complicated when the family's teenage son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has difficulty coping with life-altering personal struggles, which ultimately threatens to tear the family apart.
Quite a few movies deal with the complexities of family. As a guy who sees an awful lot of movies, I can honestly say I've never seen anything quite like Waves. It's like a family portrait. But not exactly like the ones people find on the shelves at a store like Target, with some perfect image of what a family should be in the frame. It's like someone broke the glass and took the photo out of the frame to reveal everything that we couldn't see before. The ugly. The beautiful. The complicated. The messy. The reality. It's all there and it's all truly special, be it during the most brutal of times, or the most wonderful of times. That's Waves.
For Trey Edward Shults to follow-up a horror movie like It Comes at Night with a full-blown ambitious drama is truly unexpected, but also a brilliant stroke. If there's one thing Shults is great at, it's creating a sense of atmosphere, regardless of the genre he's working in. Waves is masterfully atmospheric, without being too artsy or vague that it gets in its own way. There's a clear narrative. Clear messages. Clear points of view, but it's all laid out in such a way that feels quite unlike the bigger, glossier version of a Hollywood family drama. It's remarkable in that way.
A movie like this lives and dies by its characters, and without the right people to bring those characters to life, it's dead on arrival. Waves delivers majorly in this respect. Sterling K. Brown, thanks to This Is Us, Black Panther, and virtually everything else he touches, has asserted himself as one of our finest modern actors. Here, it's no different. He's the glue. He's a powerhouse. With that said, it's a pair of performances from the movie's young leads, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell, that truly steals the show. And the fact that they're able to steal it out from under a guy like Brown speaks volumes. There are two bonafide star-making performances at this movie's heart. Others such as Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie and Renee Elise Goldsberry only add to what could be considered an embarrassment of riches in the on-screen talent department.
At a time when there is so much discussion about what qualifies as cinema, and what we need to do in order to preserve the art form for future generations, this feels like an essential part of the conversation. Waves is as masterful a piece of filmmaking, when looking at it through the artistic lens, as we're ever likely to see in the mainstream. It is, at times, a difficult watch, but one that has such universal themes and such raw emotion, that it's hard to imagine the viewer not finding a way to connect with it and be moved by it. Waves is in theaters now from A24.