'Waves' Is a Five-Act Tragedy Worthy of the Bard

Directed by Trey Edward Shults

Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.

BY Alex HudsonPublished Oct 29, 2019

Y'know that stress dream where you're back at school, and you realize that you completely forgot about one of your courses, and suddenly it's exam time and you haven't attended a single class all term? Waves is pretty much that dream, except as a film. It's stylish and gripping — and stressful enough to give you an ulcer.
Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an overachieving high school senior who splits his very busy schedule between homework, the wrestling team, piano and his loving girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). He's a talented kid with a seemingly perfect life, but at home he's under pressure from his demanding dad Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), and works part-time for the family company. His life is like a Jenga tower of responsibilities, and it's starting to get unstable: he's popping pills to cope with a serious shoulder injury that he's downplaying to his dad, and his relationship with Alexis is beginning to take a turn.
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults conveys Tyler's anxiety with artful camera work: scenes spin dizzyingly, and the shot is almost never still, matching the pace of Tyler's hectic life. It's beautifully done, even if Tyler's journey is mostly one-note, and fashionable song placements from Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar land a little too squarely on the nose.
The stress keeps just keeps on building until the inevitable, harrowing breaking point. There, we see the ways that loved ones hurt each other, both literally and figuratively, and how a series of bad choices can tear a family apart.
Then, in the second half, Waves makes an unexpected, abrupt tonal shift. The film has the structure of a five-act Shakespearean play, where the third-act climax is followed by an extended denouement. The final part of the movie is a jarring change from the beginning, but it adds nuance to the family drama.
It's a tragedy worthy of the Bard; the only thing missing is a soliloquy.

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