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Review: ‘Waves’ is a beautiful, immersive story of tragedy and how it’s overcome

waves poster
“Waves” is a visually and narratively stunning portrayal of the modern teen experience. (Photo courtesy of A24)

At this point, it’s common knowledge that nearly everything A24 touches turns to gold. Sure, there are a few exceptions (looking at you, “Spring Breakers”), but just looking at the studio’s filmography, the work they’ve done is truly incredible.

The studio’s latest film is no exception. Director Trey Edward Shults’ masterful direction makes “Waves” one of the year’s most completely immersive films, taking viewers on a visceral viewing experience.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler, Taylor Russel as Emily, Sterling K. Brown as Ronald and Renée Elise Goldsberry as Catharine in “Waves.” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Set in South Florida, “Waves” almost feels as if it’s split into two entirely separate films. The first installment the chaotic descent of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school senior and wrestler who seems to have it all. He’s a standout athlete, a popular student and, of course, has his loving girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). While his home life may not be perfect, with an overbearing but well-intentioned father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), his sister Emily (Taylor Russel) and step-mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) both love him dearly.

The film begins in a whirlwind, breezing through scene after scene showing just how perfect Tyler’s life is, but after an ailing shoulder injury suddenly worsens, preventing him from wrestling, things begin to spiral out of control.

Alexa Demie as Alexis and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler in “Waves.” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Suddenly, something that was once so ingrained in his identity has been taken away. But that’s not the only thing going wrong. Alexis is pregnant, and despite Tyler’s urgings for her to abort the baby, she chooses to keep it – sparking an irreversible fight and break up. Before long, Tyler’s behavior becomes even more self-destructive behavior, as he begins abusing his pain medication and drinking heavily.

One night, while heavily under the influence, Tyler confronts Alexis at a party, and in his outrage strikes his former girlfriend, inadvertently killing her. He attempts to flee, but the police arrest him and sentence him to life in prison.

The first act could be an entire film in and of itself – detailing the extreme tragedy and Tyler’s reckless fall from grace. However, that’s arguably where the real story begins.

Sterling K. Brown as Ronald in “Waves.” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Instead of concluding with a hopeless, depressing ending, the second half transforms the film entirely, focusing on the aftermath of Tyler’s horrific actions and how they impacted the rest of his family. Emily, who is barely included in the film up to this point, takes centerstage as she learns how to move on after tragedy, partly through her new boyfriend, Luke (Lucas Hedges). Luke has baggage of his own, and together they learn how to move forward.

As impressive as the film’s dramatic and heart wrenching narrative is, it’s equally stunning as a technical achievement. Shults’ grasp on Gen-Z culture, from his utilization of blaring modern music to the authentic dialogue, immediately throws audiences directly into the shoes of each character in “Waves.” In the same vein as “Euphoria,” (also an A24 production) “Waves” is something real and relatable.

Taylor Russel as Emily in “Waves.” (Photo courtesy of A24)

Right from the start, a stunning continuous 360-degree shot of Harrison Jr. and Demie flying down the interstate sets the tone for the film’s entire first half: a passionate, yet extremely reckless high-speed story.

Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels’ ability to perfectly represent each portion of the film’s entire aura through the visuals and colors is truly beautiful. From the first half’s vibrant reds and blues, the electric orange of painted fingernails set against a hazy blue ocean at dusk, it’s the visual definition of Miami’s patented nightlife. Then, the calm, clean-cut and bright shots throughout the second half act as a perfect representation of the hopeful healing Tyler’s family, and audiences, hope to find.

Despite the film’s drastic split nearly right down the middle, the two halves of “Waves” work in tandem perfectly, thanks to Shults’ grasp on the narrative as a whole and his ability to careful piece back together the remains of what’s shattered in the film’s first act.

Star Rating: 4.5 out of 5


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Zach Goins View All

Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for

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