18-year-old Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) has a domineering father, Roland (Sterling K. Brown), who pushes him hard to be a good high school wrestler. He also has a younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell) and a stepmother, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry). When his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), informs him via text that she's pregnant, he pressures her to get an abortion.
The less you know about the plot of Waves the better because it veers into an expected direction after a shocking plot twist. Fortunately, the trailer does not give away any spoilers. Like many great films, it's not really about its plot, but more about the intense roller coaster ride of emotions contained within the plot. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults hooks you from from the very first frame as Emily rides her bike with her hair blowing in the wind before introducing you to Tyler and his girlfriend as they drive with music blazing. From then on, you see him wrestling and then interacting with his father and stepmother at home. Shults does an impeccable job of immersing the audience with music, natural dialogue, stylish lighting, editing and camera angles. Even the sound design adds depth because you can barely hear what Tyler father's saying to his son as he walks up the stairs, so you hear the father the way Tyler hears him.
The dialogue never feels expository nor stilted, and accomplishes a lot with just a few words. There's plenty poetry in the film's visuals and music, like when Tyler and Alexis run through a field of grass with the sprinklers on while high on MDMA. Poetry can also be found within the film's spoken words. When Emily meets Luke (Lucas Hedges) for the first time, their banter feels awkward, funny, witty and, above all, true-to-life. Shults is the rare kind of American director who trusts the audience's emotions, intelligence, imagination and patience. Impatient audience members might ask, "Where is this movie going??", "What's the point of this??" or "What is this about??" during the first half. Patient viewers will be rewarded with many answers to these questions by the time the end credits roll.
Waves has a lot to say about grief, the human experience, love, hate, forgiveness, compassion, suffering and happiness, but it doesn't hit you over the head with those messages. It also reward perceptive audiences because every scenes has small details that speak louder than words. For, there's a poster on the wall of a locker room that states something about pain, a brief moment when someone lovingly pets a cat, a couple holding hands in a car as one of the hands is quickly withdrawn, or a sermon at a church about love and hate where Tyler falls asleep. Each of those details becomes more significant later on in retrospect and upon repeat viewings.
When it comes to the performances, everyone gives a strong, convincingly moving performance. The stand-outs, though, are Taylor Russell and Sterling K. Brown both of whom give breakthrough performances. They have a scene together that's one of the film's many emotional and intellectual centers. It's a powerful, heartbreaking and unflinchingly honest scene that says a lot about the dysfunctional dynamics of Roland and Emily's relationship as father and daughter. Without giving away any spoilers, the final scene feels satisfying because it's well-earned without tying everything up in a neat bow thereby leaving enough room for interpretation. At a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, Waves is a mesmerizing, emotionally engrossing and thoroughly immersive experience. It's one of the most profound, poetic and haunting films of the year.