Waves was supposed to be the indie film that broke through into award season after winning over critics on the festival circuit, although the buzz surrounding it faded shortly after release. It’s a drama that wants to deal with big issues like toxic masculinity, grief, forgiveness and love, although lacks the insight to do so in a way that understands what they really mean. Director Trey Edward Shults used his own experiences as a young man to create the character of Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr. – who he also directed in It Comes at Night), a young high-school wrestling champion pushed to succeed in everything he does by his strict, but caring father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown).
Rather than offering insight into the complexities of the relationship between father and son, the first hour tears through the run-time at breakneck pace, relying on a thumping soundtrack and aggressive camera movement as a substitute. It will no doubt put you on the edge of your seat as the sense of something going horribly wrong takes up residency at the edge of the frame, but insight into Ronald’s insistence on living vicariously through his son largely remains elusive.
This is because Shults never allows enough room to talk about how Black fathers and sons handle their relationships and masculinity in light of the barriers placed in their way by society. A brief moment between the two hints at more to come, but it’s quickly forgotten in favour of pursuing Tyler down his path of self-destruction. Although both Brown and Harrison Jr. have said they discussed these ideas extensively with Shults, they fail to reveal themselves, leaving you to wonder what could have been achieved if such a full-on aesthetic wasn't used to overpower any sense of subtlety.
Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), remains in the background in the first half of the film before her story comes to the fore in the last hour after tragedy befalls the family. Not only is it a shift in focus but a heavy shift in tone that never comes together, primarily because the foundations for Shults’ change in perspective are not laid down assuredly during our time with Tyler. The kinetic edginess of Tyler’s world is replaced with Terrence Malick-esque navel gazing of the worst kind, the type that has dominated his style post-The Tree of Life.
There are some good ideas amongst the chaos of the first half revolving around the use of social media, emotional immaturity and the way so many of us abuse our bodies when young, but none of these are fully realised. Momentum is completely lost when we come crashing down to Earth along with Emily, who tentatively begins a relationship with the caring Luke (Lucas Hedges), and when the final act eventually returns back to plot it only feels contrived and lacking credibility.
Consistently good work does come from a well attuned cast, with Harrison Jr. once again demonstrating his emotional range and ability to hold the screen, and Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry (as Tyler’s stepmother Catharine) doing their best to elevate a meagre script. But despite their best efforts they cannot compensate for the shallowness of Shults’ film that fails to linger in the mind.
Waves opens in UK cinemas on January 17.