In the run up to awards season, one name that I expected to see mentioned a lot more than it has been was Waves. Yet another interesting A24 project, the film had been on my radar for months, and by all accounts my expectations were high thanks to the reputation of the distributor and the quality of the cast involved. Over the holiday period, then, I was surprised to see that the noise for Waves went, well, kind of quiet. It missed out on virtually any recognition from the major awarding bodies, and I was eager to find out what why that might have been.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves tells the epic story of a black family in South Florida who struggle with various secrets and setbacks before experiencing a truly life changing and shattering event. For maximum impact, the less said about the details of the narrative the better to be honest, but even as little as 30 minutes into the film you can start to distinctly recognise what is good about it and what it not so good.
I’ll start with the good. Waves is a really visually interesting and appealing film to look at, with lots of stylistic choices that make it feel completely fresh and of the moment. At various stages across the plot, pictures like Moonlight and The Florida Project came to mind, high praise indeed given the modern masterpiece status of both. From start to finish, Waves is what the cool kids might describe as ‘a vibe’. The film boasts arguably one of the best curated soundtracks of all time, and I’m not exaggerating. Featuring artists like Animal Collective, Tame Impala, Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky, Kendrick Lamar, The Shoes, H.E.R., and Tyler, the Creator, the music does so much work to dictate the tone of the narrative that it is almost a character in its own right.
Unfortunately, a lot of this outstanding stylistic work is negated somewhat by a plot and screenplay that feels like an absolute bombardment of cliches and tropes. From a combative father/son relationship to hidden painkiller addiction to a promising athlete going off the boil to teenage pregnancy and much, much more, the trials and tribulations that the Williams family go through in a two hour movie are honestly enough to fill two entire seasons of TV melodrama.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good family melodrama when it is played out well, but there is just something about the way that Waves relentlessly tries to cram in every conceivable trope into the lives of a single family turns it into a somewhat eye rolling exercise. The film does something rather bold and brave at the halfway point that is either going to turn a viewer completely on or completely off, and personally I have to say that the tonal shift hampered my rhythm with the picture. It might be some of the coolest looking, coolest feeling melodrama I’ve ever seen, but it’s still overstuffed melodrama nonetheless. In a weird way, the viewing experience is comparable to that of Uncut Gems (interestingly, another picture pretty much shut out of the major awards), a film with so much going on in a runaway train type way, that you can’t help being swept up in the anxiety of it all.
One thing that can’t be faulted in the film is the strong performances given by all of central cast. As son Tyler, Kelvin Harrison Jr. simmers with an intensity that we can all relate to from our teen years, although hopefully to not such a dramatic and damaging effect! Harrison Jr. manages to be both likeable and unlikeable all at the same time, perfectly echoing the way that adolescent young men can switch on a dime depending on their mood and surroundings.
Renée Elise Goldsberry and Sterling K. Brown give excellent performances as parents Catherine and Ronald. Enthusiastic for their children to achieve the best in life, sometimes too enthusiastic, they paint a portrait of a step mother and father who are wrestling with their children starting to become detached from them and forge their own paths, in this case to an extremely heightened and terrifying degree.
The family is rounded out by Taylor Russell in the role of younger sister Emily, at first something of a background character was someone who comes quickly to the forefront as the events of the narrative start to spiral. Russell’s ‘portion’ of the film almost feels like a totally separate entity, complete with a supporting performance from none other than Lucas Hedges. Her rise in narrative prominence marks the film’s tonal shift, and though the acting is on point throughout, I have to admit that its a shift and second act that I probably didn’t need. I can understand the intended nuance of the choice, but I’m just not sure it was sufficiently pulled off.
Overall, Waves is a rare film for me in the way that even a week later, I still don’t think I’ve completely made my mind up on it. Strong in some ways, weak in others, it really feels like a might have a completely different opinion on the picture even this time next month. Did it deserve the kind of awards attention that early hype was touting it for? In certain technical categories, yes, and as outsider picks for acting, certainly. As a complete package of a film, however, I’d probably have to say that Waves is slightly too ‘tropey’ for its own good.