"We are not afforded the luxury of being average."
Such is the creed of Ronald Williams, the loving but demanding patriarch to a hardworking Florida family of four. Determined to see his kin succeed, he sets his expectations high, knowing that being African American means having to put in extra effort just to get on the same level as others.
Eldest child Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a walking embodiment of this pressure. A high-school senior, his average day — between his star status on the wrestling team, his relationship with gorgeous cheerleader Alexis (Alexa Demie) and keeping his grades up — is nothing short of a well-calculated juggling act. But his life on the mat takes clear precedence, driven by a not-so-subtle rivalry with his father (Sterling K. Brown), whose badly injured knee doesn't keep him from starting frequent weight-lifting contests and arm-wrestling matches with his son.
But as Tyler continues to push himself, his own physical complications begin to grow more foreboding, particularly a menacing pain in his shoulder. It finally gives way during a crucial wrestling meet, a career-shattering moment that turns out to be merely the first domino in a series of misfortunes that send Tyler's life, relationships and sense of self spiraling. With nowhere to turn and unwilling to concede defeat to his old man, he makes a series of increasingly reckless decisions that finally culminate in unthinkable tragedy.
Left to their own devices to cope with the aftermath, Tyler's father, mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and sister Emily (Taylor Russell) are forced to face just how unhealthy their family dynamic really is and figure out how — or if — they can eventually heal.
It's often difficult and sometimes downright unpleasant to witness, but thanks to mesmerizingly kinetic direction, a true-to-life script and world-class performances, "Waves" might be this year's most convincing and lasting story of redemption and hope in the shadow of catastrophe. Young writer-director Trey Edward Shults ("Krisha," "It Comes at Night") has crafted a mature yet unflinching look at what happens when the façade of suburban contentment is stripped away to reveal the unchecked anguish that can bubble underneath.
Despite its heartbreaking, sometimes horrifying subject matter, the film never succumbs to cynicism, opting to emphasize the inevitability of its characters' flawed humanity by fleshing out all of their perspectives, taking the time to grapple head-on with their many conflicting emotions. Shults employs just about every facet of the movie-going experience to accomplish this goal: dazzling, sometimes frenetic camerawork; changing aspect ratios; a shrewdly hand-picked soundtrack that meshes beautifully with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross's pounding, anxiety-addled score.
Still, the acting on display in "Waves" is what solidifies its unshakable empathy. Brown's early Oscar buzz is well-earned for his turn as a dad whose deep-seated insecurity is blanketed by an overly competitive, quietly threatening disposition, yet he adds a level of shame and overall existential confusion that, against all odds, makes Ronald perhaps the film's most relatable figure. The young cast gives star-making performances, particularly Russell, who late in the film shares the screen with Brown in what is among the most deeply affecting dialogue-driven scenes of 2019.
Movies with similar premises often end up nothing more than dour bits of grief-porn. This film could have easily suffered such a fate, especially given how few moments of levity it offers — one or two at the most. But while the Williams family's downward plunge is nothing short of harrowing, Shults puts his full faith in the power of the upswing. It's rare that the pain of loss, the trials of recovery and the power of forgiveness are all thoroughly exhibited in the same movie, and few films pull off such a feat as potently and lastingly as "Waves."
John Battiston, who screened "Waves" at the 2019 Middleburg Film Festival, is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.