Waves (4 stars)


LFF 2019: Trey Edward Shults's third film is a dynamic tearjerker focusing on family and forgiveness

John Waters placed Trey Edward Shults's debut Krisha number one on his Artforum list of the best films of 2016, elevating this microbudget drama about addiction and family dysfunction to the top of the must-see pile. With his third feature, following It Comes at Night, Shults returns to the subject of family and forgiveness with a dynamic tearjerker powered by a jukebox of modern bangers and stone-cold classics from the likes of Dinah Washington, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Animal Collective.

It's a film of two halves that splits open in the middle after a tragic incident. The first focuses on the agony and ecstasy of Tyler (an extraordinary Kelvin Harrison Jr), who is suffering from a wrestling injury. The second shadows his sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who falls head over heels in love with Luke (Lucas Hedges, being adorable). Sterling K Brown turns in a powerful performance as their stern father, and Renée Elise Goldsberry impresses as their devoted stepmother.

Waves is painfully honest and earnest as it captures the teen experience through creative flourishes that mimic Instagram and TikTok posts. Shults swirls his lens round the characters in dizzying fashion and inserts explosions of horror and beauty, intimacy and detachment, tenderness and brutality, using the sizzling soundtrack to persuasively convey emotional states.

The director's intense observations and building of momentum to breaking point delivers blazing bursts of glorious bliss and throbbing sorrow and each performance feels remarkably lived in. Russell's gentle turn is a particular highlight, as the film switches gears and foregrounds forgiveness and the gradual healing process.

Through the father-son dynamic, the film openly acknowledges how race can play a part in the doors that are opened and closed to people. It specifically looks at the enormous pressure that Tyler is placed under to achieve his goals as a young African-American man, and the potentially ugly ramifications of that. It's unafraid to confront the grey areas where repressed masculinity and violence meet – though a more nuanced approach may have served this sensitive subject better. The whole structure of the film relies on placing the viewer in its protagonists' shoes to feel their elation, rage and vulnerability, which makes Waves both a captivating and hard-hitting experience.

Screening on Sat 12 and Sun 13 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 17 Jan.


  • 4 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 2h 15min
  • Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
  • Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges, Sterling K Brown
  • UK release: 17 January 2020

Tyler (Harrison Jr) is suffering from a wrestling injury; meanwhile, his sister Emily (Russell) falls in love with Luke (Hedges). Microbudget drama about addiction and family dysfunction, capturing the teen experience through creative flourishes that mimic Instagram and TikTok posts; captivating and hard-hitting.