Movie Review: Sterling K. Brown fathers family drama in ‘Waves’

November 28, 2019

Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry star in "Waves."

November 29, 2020 | (Jason Fraley)

Some movies you watch to be entertained. Others, you watch to learn a piece of history. But the special few teach us something transcendent about everyday life.

That’s the case with the unforgettable indie “Waves,” which is making waves this award season with comparisons to “Moonlight.” While the two A24 films similarly feature a unique fractured narrative, vibrant visual sensibility and themes of African-American Floridians, they actually tackle different subjects.

Rather than sexual orientation in a low-income family, we examine upper-middle-class grief.

The story follows a suburban family in South Florida, led by strict father Ronald Williams (Sterling K. Brown), who pushes his 17-year-old son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) to a wrestling scholarship.

The pressure plunges Tyler to self-medicate with pain killers and booze, while his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) fades into the background before finally getting her day in the sun.

Brown is a once-in-a-generation acting force, showing a different side than his Emmy-winning role in “This Is Us.” Rather than his soft-spoken Randall Pearson, his Ronald Williams is a domineering helicopter parent, at times disturbing as he challenges his son to an arm wrestling match at the diner, then sympathetic as a tough-love father figure.

Renee Elise Goldsberry plays his therapist wife, who grapples with the common stepmother charge of “you’re not my real mother.”

Still, the real show stealers are the adolescent children, played by two of the finest newcomers on screen. Harrison Jr. boasts a brash jock swagger with shocking intensity, yet conveys the fragility of a scared teenager as he texts with his fiery girlfriend (Alexa Demie).

Russell is a revelation as the shy sister, unsure how to handle the romantic gestures by her dorky classmate (Lucas Hedges). Both young actors are given equal time to shine, as writer/director Trey Edward Shults structures his script outside the traditional hero arc.

While “Moonlight” was essentially three short films about three different phases of a man’s life, “Waves” divides its story in half. The first half is a character study of Tyler, then a gut-punch midpoint shifts perspectives to see everything through Emily’s eyes.

Shults’ directing style presents a similar dichotomy. The first half is kinetic with flashing lights, submerged ocean shots and a circling camera inside a speeding car blaring Kendrick Lamar.

The second half is more meditative with longer takes, wider shots and a more mellow soundtrack of Radiohead and Animal Collective. Both are bookended by a symbolic image of a bicycle ride down a sunlit road.

This isn’t a passive director hoping to remain transparent. This is a filmmaker with something to say visually, even co-editing his own film with Isaac Hagy. His contrasting tones provide a dual experience that’s somehow brought together with a full-circle cohesion.

Here’s hoping the 31-year-old Shults earns his first Best Director nomination after “Krisha” (2015) and “It Comes at Night” (2017).

As the director explained last month at the Middleburg Film Festival, the esoteric title comes from the “ebbs and flows” of life’s crashing waves and receding waters. When shocking moments happen, they don’t feel contrived for the sake of drama; rather, the tensions organically escalate between victims of circumstance.

Likewise, when the soothing moments happen, they don’t feel like a forced release; rather the soft caress of an earned calm after the storm.

“Waves” certainly won’t be for everybody because it deals with some very serious material in a raw, disturbing way, but I promise you will never forget it. It’s a thoughtful film that lingers in your brain long after the credits roll, teaching us life lessons about parenting, self control, forgiveness and unconditional love.

May its waves wash over your soul with the cleansing power of the cinema.

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