By Glenn Heath Jr.
Trey Edwards Shults seems to think that life exists only in a heightened state of anxiety. Even though his 2015 debut, “Krisha,” takes place in suburbia, it might as well be a combat film; what should be a hopeful reunion between one woman and her estranged family turns into a holiday massacre of vicious words and accusations. “It Comes at Night,” his cloying end-of-the-world thriller about one family’s attempt to survive the apocalypse, is equally pummeling.
There’s nothing subtle about these films, and Shults’ newest awards-bait drama “Waves” continues that trend with unabashed conviction. It focuses on a well-to-do black family in South Florida that experiences a collective breakdown in spirit and purpose because of self-inflicted wounds. Told in two distinctive parts, the film aligns with the frazzled perspectives of two teenage children adrift in the chaos.
A star wrestler and well-liked student, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to be living the dream. But it turns out to be the dream of his domineering father (Sterling K. Brown), a man who assigns worth to very specific physical achievements.
Younger daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) is all but forgotten until the film’s jarring shift in perspective at the halfway point. Through her naïve eyes, “Waves” become slightly more tolerable, if only for a few moments.
In the end, Shults’ impressively terrible film telegraphs tragedy with little regard for the nuances of human experience. It swings for the fences in every moment, producing the most uninteresting and unrewarding type of melodrama that panders to obvious sentiment.
For 136 minutes, “Waves” tells us exactly how to feel at all times, shoving empty images and obvious moral lessons down the audience’s throat with reckless abandon. Sitting through this disaster is akin to being trapped in a pretentious film student’s looping attempt at doing an IG-story version of “This Is Us.”