Drama from writer-director Trey Edward Shults unfolds in two distinct halves


There are two movies in "Waves," connected but not quite complimenting one another. 

One is a fierce drama, intense and in-your-face, with jarring music cues that blast as if they're taking its characters' inner feelings outward. The second is a soothing come down, the calm after the storm, a tonal shift that feels like the floor dropping out from underneath the movie. 

Taken together, it's a poignant, impassioned ride, an experiment in emotional upheaval that knocks you out then tries to pick you back up. It's a whirlwind that can leave you stammering. 

"Waves" is the third feature from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, who made the claustrophobic family holiday drama "Krisha" and followed it with the disappointing "It Comes at Night." Here, he employs dizzying camera work — he's particularly fond of a rotating 360 degree swirl — to help convey the open-book freedom of youth. 

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star high school wrestler in an upper middle class Florida community who is pushed by his overbearing father, Ronald (a powerful Sterling K. Brown) to be the best he can be. An injury and the unexpected pregnancy of his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), sends him spiraling and leads to a series of life-changing mistakes.

That's the charged first half. The subdued second half picks up with Tyler's sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who falls for her goofy classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges). Shults uses the same spinning camera technique as he did in the first half, although here it represents the bewildering power of love, where before it symbolized a life spinning out of control. 

Shults sometimes gives the screen over to prisms of light and washes of color, which is fitting, since "Waves" is more about mood than narrative. Its excellent soundtrack, which includes selections from Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Kid Cudi and Radiohead, helps feed that mood, adding to the emotional tapestry Shults is weaving.

The yin and yang of the two halves don't entirely become whole; the undeniably powerful first half casts a long shadow the second half can't quite escape. When it works, it hits as hard as any movie this year, but those triumphs only come in waves. 





Rated R: for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens

Running time: 135 minutes

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