LFF Exclusive Review: Waves

By Caz Armstrong

This review is spoiler-free

“Waves” (2019) is the third film by writer-director Trey Edward Shults. It is a powerful drama about the ripple effects of violent acts and their impact on many different lives.

High school athlete Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) struggles to keep up with intense wrestling training, his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and his family’s expectations. His father (Sterling K Brown) pushes him to the limits of his physical and academic ability and is a strict disciplinarian despite providing a luxurious family home.

All this pressure comes to a head and a violent act occurs. As the family comes to terms with their own guilt about the situation his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) tries to hold multiple relationships together, as well as her own emotions.


As the first act unfolded I was worried this would be yet another film trying to elicit sympathy for an angry man making bad choices instead of talking.

But the film throws some curve balls and the emphasis changes almost entirely. Not because of particularly major plot twists, but a reframing of the story already being told. We’re shown a new perspective and the whole centre of gravity shifts.

This film is not about what I initially thought it was.

The first ripple effect is on Tyler’s family. Shock and sadness crack them open and guilt seeps into the gaps, pushing them apart.


Just as we settle into their story the next chapter shifts again. The ripples now move to Emily’s other relationships, and in turn, affects how those people deal with others.

With each changing chapter, there is not only a shift of characters in focus but in style. The aspect ratio changes throughout the film. This gives a different perspective to each part, showing us that although the story is the same we’re seeing it in a different way.

There’s also a notable change in camera style. In some chapters, the camera barely stops moving at all as it pans, zooms and spins constantly. In others, it is noticeably more static and the characters sit in stillness.

These two elements combine with shifting colour palettes to help us to see events through different eyes.


This change of tone may throw some viewers off. But I’d argue that drama is not just physical high stakes or adrenaline-fuelled. A skillful drama examines deep complex emotions. The different tones of the film reflect the characters they portray and must be presented separately.

Overall the film seems like an apology to – and a praise of – black women for the disproportionate burden placed upon them. The burden of caring, forgiving, comforting, being mature beyond their years and holding others together.

Those who approach this film with an appreciation for messy complicated emotions and relationships will be rewarded with a strikingly powerful and important story that will make you want to call a loved one to start rebuilding bridges.

Rating: 4 Out of 5 Stars

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