Jordan Canahai’s review published on Letterboxd:
If Terrence Malick took ecstasy and made a high school drama the end result may not be entirely dissimilar to Waves, the new film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, though that compliment may not accurately convey the depth of emotion the film carries. Waves is indeed an aptly titled film, this is a cinematic experience that washes over you with a tidal wave of emotions before returning one to a place of calm serenity and well-earned catharsis. Waves details the harrowing emotional trek undergone by a South Florida-based black suburban family that touches on a host of rich themes; parental love, toxic masculinity, coming of age, and forgiveness to name a few, all scored to a pulsing soundtrack comprised of some of popular musics most essential contemporary voices and expertly photographed to dazzling effect.
Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a seemingly typical high school senior, popular with his classmates and respected by teachers and coaches for his athletic abilities and drive. He parties with friends and values the time spent with his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), above all else, even as his strict father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) constantly pushes him to do better in sports and school. His stepmother, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldberry) takes a softer approach to parenting, but there is nonetheless a disconnect in their relationship, perhaps because of the tragic circumstances that claimed the life of his biological mother. When news that an injury to his shoulder could threaten Tyler's long-term health if he doesn't get surgery, Tyler makes the mistake of refusing to tell his parents the news while continuing his season, causing him further harm. Then when Alexis tells him she's late with her period and fears she is pregnant Tyler once again chooses to keep the news from his parents, always stubbornly viewing them as potential adversaries rather than potential allies.
One thing leads to another as Tyler's life slowly spirals out of control with drugs and alcohol, a descent that Shults conveys painfully and with a strong sense of impending doom, until finally an explosion of anger results in tragedy. But then something curious happens, just when things seem impossibly bleak for this family the narrative shifts to focus on Tyler's younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), as she attempts to navigate the already fraught world of young womanhood with this newfound pain bearing down on her due to her brother's actions. She meets Luke (Lucas Hedges) a good-natured classmate of Tyler's who awkwardly but sweetly asks her out on a date. Emily's emotional evolution in some ways proves to be the heart of the film, and through her relationship with Luke she is able to come to terms with not only Tyler's actions, but also help her mother and father forgive each other's failings and become closer as a family.
Waves is a film of immense beauty with moments that convey a dizzying degree of emotions, from its bombastic opening shot to its quiet, cathartic final passages. At 29 years of age Trey Edward Shults displays remarkable confidence for such a young filmmaker, capturing moments out of time with a vibrant and indelibly lived-in quality, following up one inspired directorial choice with another. His use of music is also impressive, as the extraordinary soundtrack boasts music from Animal Collective, Tyler the Creator, Kendrick Lamarr, Chance the Rapper, Amy Winehouse, and Radiohead just to name a few. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross also provide some expertly incorporated original music to rank alongside their similarly affecting work in A24's Mid 90s. Waves is ultimately an intensely moving story that doubles both as a bleak cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked masculinity, but more importantly a family drama about the importance of finding love and forgiveness in one's heart even during the most trying of times