“We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) admonishes his teenage son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) early on in Trey Edward Shults’ flawed but deeply felt domestic drama.
And indeed, the Williams family lives every day — church, work, sports, school — as a model of upward mobility and black excellence. If Ronald is the hard-driving perfectionist, Catharine (Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry) is the cooler head who prevails, handing out hugs and wry winks over her husband’s shoulder as Tyler and his younger sister, Emily (a luminous Taylor Russell), roll their eyes.
They’re both too late though to see that Tyler — torn between parental expectations, his own self-imposed pressures, and trying to manage a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend (Euphoria queen bee Alexa Demie) — is starting to come apart.
As his psyche splits, so does the film: Waves is essentially two movies, the first hour cleaving off as the far more muted second half shifts focus to Emily and her blossoming romance with the sweet-natured classmate (Lucas Hedges) who singles her out.
Shults (Krisha, It Comes At Night) front-loads his story with so much feverish plotting and kinetic camerawork that that reach sometimes threatens to subsume it; it’s hard not be reminded of recent (and more fully realized) indie touchstones like Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, another film that soaked itself in the visual and musical language of contemporary youth culture, or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, whose Florida setting held a sort of dreamlike sway over nearly every scene.
In the sometimes overstuffed script there’s more than a touch, too, of the TV projects two of its stars are best known for: This Is Us (Brown) and Euphoria (Demie). If the pairing of those two wildly different shows sounds counterintuitive, it speaks, maybe, to how much Shults seems to want to fit into Waves both dramatically and style-wise. In end though, substance — or at least his sincere approximation of it — wins. B+