“Waves” puts moviegoers through hell, the better to lift them to heaven.
It’s a story in two parts, the first of which is about the worst kind of adolescent flame-out — the sort of local tragedy you read in the news with a pit in your stomach. The second half is an account of healing and recovered grace on the part of the movie’s other characters. Is it worth crawling across the broken glass of the initial hour to make it to the balm of the second? That’ll be up to you, as will the incantatory visual style of “Waves” — a powerful artistic undertow that sucks viewers in and spits them out gasping.
At the center of the screen when the film begins is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school wrestler who seems to have the world pinned to the mat. Confident unto cockiness, he’s a star of his South Florida universe, with a committed girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), adoring friends, and supportive parents. “Waves” rides Tyler in on a high, the camera swirling around him in a 360-degree swoop as he and his crew speed through the nighttime streets, rapping along to Kanye and A$AP Rocky.
The kid has it all, except he doesn’t. There’s a shoulder injury he’s ignoring with help from his parents’ medicine cabinet, and only Tyler and we seem to notice the unrelenting pressure from his construction foreman father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, of “This Is Us”), to exceed and excel every second of every day. With his mandatory father-son weightlifting sessions and refusal to brook the slightest rebellion, Ronald is a sports-dad nightmare up there with Karl Malden in “Fear Strikes Out,” but part of the tragedy is that we understand him. He’s raising a black kid in white America, and so he believes he’s arming Tyler for survival. He’s actually locking him into a shrinking cell of expectations.
Something goes wrong, and then something else, and suddenly the boy has lost his moorings, leading with a helpless dreamlike horror to a climactic act of prom-night violence. We see it coming, and the filmmaking pushes us almost as hard as Tyler’s father, jittering the camera and pumping up the volume, bathing the screen in primary colors that seem on the verge of meltdown. The first hour of “Waves” feels told from the red-hot inner core of a teenage boy’s head, through eyes as cracked as a cellphone screen; it’s all too much, both intentionally and unintentionally. (If you’re upset by scenes of domestic violence, consider this a trigger warning.)
The movie reaches a peak of nightmarish intensity and then — we still have an hour to go. “Waves” switches to the one person in the room we’ve never really noticed: Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who’s been going about her timid but sure way while her big brother sucks up all the oxygen. In the aftermath of the film’s central disaster, with Ronald reeling and his wife, Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), rigid with anger, Emily floats through her days at school, isolated from her peers, until a boy awkwardly works up the nerve to speak to her. This is Luke (Lucas Hedges, of “Manchester by the Sea”), and the charting of their relationship, blooming slowly into love, is the rope-ladder “Waves” uses to climb back into the land of the living.
The film’s rhythms have slowed by now; the music is gentler; the action ventures out into the natural world. The sky opens up, as do possibilities — of atonement, forgiveness, reconciliation. Pretty much every character is in tears by the end. There’s a good chance you will be, too.
Some of us have had our eye on writer-director Trey Edward Shults for a while now. His debut was “Krisha,” in 2015, a low-budget drama about a wayward family member that bubbled over with audio-visual ambition. His sophomore outing, “It Comes at Night” (2017), was a not-really horror movie that again dealt with a family under apocalyptic stress. With “Waves,” Shults announces he’s ready for the big leagues, capable of weaving the disparate parts of cinema into an intoxicating, one-of-a-kind whole. He works with a regular cinematographer (Drew Daniels), uses pop music and traditional scoring (here by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) in fresh ways, and treats sound design as a discombobulating art form of its own. He has done scutwork on Terence Malick movies, and it shows.
The first time I saw “Waves,” at a festival in September, I felt simultaneously steamrollered and dazzled. A second, more recent viewing emphasized the steamrolling; I could see the seams holding Shults’s vision together, and I realized his desire to take audiences on a rocket-ship ride often precludes his ability to trust them.
That will come with time. See “Waves,” then, for its visual acrobatics and impassioned movie poetry. See it for the central quintet of performances: Harrison Jr., who with this and “Luce” has cornered the 2019 market on stressed-out African American boy-men; Brown, locating the sorrow in a ramrod parent; the patient, graceful Goldsberry; Taylor’s gauche beauty and wisdom; the steadfastness of Hedges’s Luke.
And see it for Shults, because the kid’s clearly going places.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Lucas Hedges. At Boston Common, Kendall Square. 135 minutes. R (language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content, and brief — possibly triggering — violence, all involving teens)