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Emotionally compelling, fine acting make “Waves” a must-see family drama

Updated: Jun 5, 2022


High school seniors Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) enjoy the day at the beach.

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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and Digital copy; 2019; R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube

Best extra: Q&A with director and cast

WITH “Waves,” writer/director/co-editor/producer Trey Edward Shults (“It Comes By Night”) covers a lot of highly-charged emotional ground.

Much of it requires his actors (and may inspire his audience) to weep copiously in this 135-minute saga about the trials of a successful African American family living in South Florida. And while Shults may have been a bit over-ambitious in the scope of issues he addresses such as opioid and alcohol abuse; abortion; parental bullying; deathbed (and every other type of) heartrending reconciliation, the film mostly works, thanks to its universal truths, powerful messages, outstanding acting, and superb production.

One of the most welcome aspects of “Waves” is its lack of racial and social stereotyping such as the matter-of-fact way Shults deals with the young interracial couples featured in the story.

The film is divided into two thematic halves. The first revolves around Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a popular high school senior and star of the wrestling team, who expects to parlay that stardom into a college scholarship. Tyler seems to have a healthy, fun-loving relationship with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and good rapport with his strict father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), caring step-mother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). But when unforeseen events begin to threaten both Tyler’s relationship with Alexis and his golden future, his tolerance for his father’s heavy pressure to succeed wears thin, and the teenager spirals increasingly into dangerous and destructive territory.

The second half of “Waves” focuses on Emily, her alienation from her family and peers, and her potential salvation by a burgeoning romance with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a shy, sweet schoolmate.

(1) Tyler and his wrestling teammates continue conditioning exercises for the upcoming season. (2) Tyler flexes his muscles in front of the mirror before sending a photograph of himself to Alexis. (3) Tyler struggles to stay awake during church. (4) Tyler is not just an athlete, but an accomplished piano player. Harrison wrote one of the songs featured on the soundtrack.



This Lionsgate 4K (digital) looks wonderful with intensely saturated colors and high contrast levels showcasing the inventive camera work by cinematographer Drew Daniels and Shults. They previously worked together and wanted to continue their approach of a changing cinematic language, using varying aspect ratios as the character’s emotions shift.

The film opens with a swirling camera moving between Tyler and Alexis inside a car with a slight widescreen ratio of 1.85:1. Shults says the roiling suggests “a sense of danger.” In the second act, the ratio changes to super widescreen 2.35:1 to 2.67:1, and when life presses onto Tyler from all sides, the frame compresses into the square ratio of 1.33:1. Then the ratio bounces back to 2.67:1 and 1.85:1 during Emily's journey.

If you’re using a projector with a superwide screen, the best option is to frame it in 1.85:1 and let the changing ratios fall as they may.

The 4K features Dolby Vision and HDR10 toning for a much darker and richer color palette. The diverse skin tones are true to life, but at times the darker toning makes Sterling Brown’s face harder to see. From wide shots to the numerous close-ups the sharpness and clarity is quite good for a film captured on 2.8-3.4K digital cameras and then mastered in 2K. A slight amount of film grain filtering was applied.

(1) Tyler's father continues to push him to be better, as they train together at their home gym. (2) Coach Wise (Bill Wise) gives the wrestling team a pre-match pep-talk. (3) After Tyler's winning match, he continues to struggle with a sore shoulder. (4) The MRI results for Tyler's shoulder isn't good. He hides the results from his parents and starts to self-medicate.



A rarity within digital platforms, the 4K gets the more advanced and expansive Dolby Atmos soundtrack over the six-channel DTS-HD coded on the Blu-ray. Excellent effects and its terrific techno/rock score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor are pushed to height speakers. The 39 (!) songs were selected by Shults to enhance and foreshadow the story and suggest the emotions of each main character. A scene in a car with Tyler and Catherine (Goldsberry, who won a Tony for her role in “Hamilton”) sings to her step-son “What a Difference a Day Makes,” along with Dinah Washington’s recording on the radio.

Original tunes by Ross and Reznor, and even one written by Harrison, join songs by artists Amy Winehouse, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Radiohead. The dialogue is always clear and intelligible, with well-modulated sound effects.


Digital and the Blu-ray disc include deleted scenes, a making-of documentary, and a commentary by Shults and Harrison. The Q&A hosted by Time Out New York features Shults, Harrison, Brown, Demie, Goldsberry, and Russell. Shults calls “Waves” his “most personal film,” containing autobiographical elements like being on the wrestling team (“I still have the scars on my shoulder”) and growing up in South Florida.

Brown laughs about assuming Shults was African American when he read the script, and admits he wasn’t comfortable with some elements in the first half of the story. The second half was what convinced him to take the part. Harrison worked with Shults previously, and says he always felt the director was “like a big brother to me.” Shults used some details from Harrison’s own life to add to Tyler’s character.

Goldsberry recalls that while preparing for her role, Shults put her on the phone with his mother, a therapist, for advice. There were many instances of improvisation as when Tyler and his father fiercely arm-wrestle in a restaurant. Shults also comments on the “Christian” aspects of the film noting he grew up with religion, but that he mostly hoped to convey a “message of love, forgiveness and healing.”

— Peggy Earle

(1) Tyler's strict father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) notices changes with his son's personality and attitude. (2&3) Tyler's shoulder is in doubt during the wrestling championships. (4) Tyler and Alexis face a new challenge. (5) Tyler hits the party scene to hide the pain of his wrestling career and strained relationship with his girlfriend. (6) It's Prom Night and Alexis goes to the dance without Tyler. At the dance, Alexis applies some lip-gloss to Tyler's younger sister Emily.


Tyler’s world spins out of control


(1&2) Emily finds romance with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a shy, sweet schoolmate. (3) An emotional one-on-one fishing date between Emily and her father. (4) Emily finds freedom and forgiveness.





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