Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Some movies serve merely to entertain. Come on in, relax and have a good time. Last week’s mystery Knives Out is a recent example of that. Others have a message they want to impart about something important happening in the world around us. This week’s fact-based drama Dark Waters is like that. Some have larger ambitions. They try to shine a light on humanity; who we are as people and the consequences our decisions have, not just for us, but for everyone in our orbit. By concentrating intently on what happens to a small group of people, they make us think about what we do and how we live our lives. The drama Waves fits that description perfectly. A look at a family moving toward, and through, very difficult times, it is beautiful, sad and tremendously touching. I have seen thousands of movies in my life. It is rare one makes me seriously contemplate how I can be more thoughtful, kind, loving or responsible for myself. Waves impacted me in that way.
The story follows the Williams family: father Ronald, stepmother Catharine, teenage son Tyler and teenage daughter Emily. The initial focus is on Tyler, a high school wrestler with a girlfriend (Alexis) he adores. His days are busy with school, training (his father pushes him very hard) and work. He loves his family, but wrestling and Alexis are what gives his life its meaning. Then his shoulder begins giving him trouble and his relationship with Alexis hits a rough patch, leading him on a dangerous road. Though it seems to be about him, Waves is really about the effect all of these people have on each other.
Waves (131 minutes without the end credits) was written/directed/produced by Trey Edward Shults, who also worked on the film editing and music editing. This is his third feature, after Krisha (unseen by me) and the haunting It Comes at Night. From what I have seen of his work, his major themes seem to be grief, love and survival. Waves is neither horror nor suspense, yet he knows how to build tension into the Williams’ everyday routine. It keeps the audience on edge. We can feel something bad coming. When it inevitably does, and everyone’s pain comes to the surface, it is with an immense, almost unbearable, sadness.
Shults has way more on his mind than just tragedy. His story is about the ripples sent out by seemingly simple acts. He shows this in moments big and small. Emotional conversations between the family members are as significant as Tyler and Ronald working out together or Tyler and Alexis sharing some sweet alone time in his car. He mirrors images from one character to another, displaying their connectivity and, by extension, our own. Everything Tyler does leaves its mark on Emily, Ronald, Catharine, Alexis and her family in both obvious and unexpected ways. Still, pain is not the only thing shared. Shults also presents the understanding and kindness that can put us back together.
He is greatly assisted by a cast that is uniformly excellent. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is loving, but on the verge of being overwhelmed by pressure, as Tyler. Taylor Russell is brilliant as Emily, a young woman who tends to slip under her family’s radar. Sterling K. Brown puts in the best performance of his career as Ronald, a man who always needs to be better so his family can have opportunities he never did, unfortunately putting that stress on his son. Renée Elise Goldsberry is Catharine, who may not be Tyler and Emily’s birth mother, yet cares for them as though she is. Lucas Hedges also appears as a classmate of Emily’s, a character that helps give Waves some unforeseen emotion at its climax.
A movie is not about its subject matter. It is about how it relays that subject matter. Waves tells a story we have all seen before, if not in the theater, then on the news. However, the plot is not what makes it so good. It is the way Shults allows it to organically unfold. The way he and his actors bring us into the character’s heads, making us relate to them. The way he forces us to look at the pain they cause without averting our eyes, then shows us the love and forgiveness that has the potential to heal those wounds. This is not an easy watch. It is challenging and sometimes unpleasant. But it is absolutely worth it. Despite everything the Williams’ experience, I came out of it hopeful. This is a movie that reminds me what a movie can be when it is made by a confident, ambitious filmmaker at the top of their game. It is one of the best of the year.
5 out of 5
Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler
Taylor Russell as Emily
Sterling K. Brown as Ronald
Renée Elise Goldsberry as Catharine
Lucas Hedges as Luke
Alexa Demie as Alexis
Written and Directed by Trey Edward Shults