Review: Waves is a stylish family drama, but shows a naive approach to race

Trey Edward Shults’s film about an African-American family coping with trauma lacks delicacy and awareness


WAVES (Trey Edward Shults). Opens Friday (November 22). 135 minutes. See listing. Rating: NN


The story goes that Waves is inspired by experiences from writer and director Trey Edward Shults’s own life. Shults is a white man. Waves is about an African-American family. The racial makeup shifted, as the cast and director explained in interviews, because Shults wanted to reunite with Kelvin Harrison Jr., the young actor with whom he worked on It Comes At Night.

There’s something downright utopian about that colour-blind casting, where the same stories and experiences can be shared across racial divides. The story, in as much as Waves commits to one, could have been about any family.

But to do that right requires delicacy and awareness. Waves comes up short in that department while going hard on others. The film is too often caught up in style with near-hallucinatory pastel-and-neon sights and pulsating soundtrack cues, drumming up emotions with a sensory assault rather than insight and sensitivity.

Harrison Jr. plays Tyler, a star athlete who is pushed to excel by a stern but loving father (Sterling K. Brown). That pressure leads to substance abuse and a mid-film tragedy that I won’t spoil. Tyler is the focus in the film’s first half before the bifurcated structure shifts focus to his sister Emily (a graceful Taylor Russell), who leads the family’s recovery from trauma. In both halves, the characters juggle school, family and romantic relationships. Euphoria’s Alexa Demie plays Tyler’s girlfriend, while Lucas Hedges pops up as Emily’s paramour.

The structural split is a hacky gimmick favoured by celebrated filmmakers like Alejandro González Iñárritu and Derek Cianfrance. Shults’s direction and DP Drew Daniels’s aggressive camera work, as well as the film’s vague and ephemeral themes, certainly recalls their films.

But Waves is also full of throbbing beauty, with shots that float Terrence Malick-like to the sounds of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. I crave this kind of cross-pollination between art film and hip-hop – like a feature film spin on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. I imagine it’s a reason why so many of us are ready to heap praise on films like Waves and Melina Matsoukas’s Queen & Slim (opening next week). We’re so eager to celebrate when prestige filmmaking finds value in our favoured aesthetics and sounds.

We’re also eager to celebrate a film that challenges POC actors like Brown, Harrison Jr., Renée Elise Goldsberry (from the musical Hamilton) and especially Canada’s Russell with emotional material, giving them just enough room to be great.

The cast fight for attention against filmmaking that draws attention to itself and they often succeed. I can’t wait to revisit a soft-spoken, heartbreaking father-daughter scene between Brown and Russell over and over, likely as a clip shown at awards ceremonies. That moment very nearly saves this movie from itself.

The casting naturally adds shades and implications, where race and the pressures being Black are addressed. But Waves doesn’t seem particularly concerned with how a story about fatherhood and toxic masculinity becomes a conversation about Black fathers and Black masculinity. Nor does the film consider how its split-narrative structure creates a parallel between the two young men: Harrison Jr.’s Tyler and Hedges’s Luke.

The former is Black. Both his sexuality and his masculinity are root causes that propel him toward the film’s central tragedy, which casts a shadow over everything. Hedges’s Luke, on the other hand, is white. His sexuality comes off as sensitive, awkward and adorable. He’s a balm in this narrative and stands in stark relief against Tyler’s threatening manhood.

That’s an unfortunate contrast that I can’t imagine Shults intended. But intention doesn’t forgive ignorance. Waves can work beautifully as a flighty family melodrama that has next to nothing to do with race, but only if you have the luxury to think that way.

@JustSayRad

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