What are a lot of the great drama films out there primarily known for? The story and the characters, which is what it’s all about. However, they’re also movies, so storytelling shouldn’t just be done through dialogue, but through visuals. When you just have a lot of characters sitting around and talking, it can be tough to do, but a strong visual language only helps to further immerse you in the story and characters. 
Waves chronicles the life of the Williams family, led by domineering father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and his more empathetic wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Their older son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular high school student on their wrestling team, while their younger teenage daughter Emily (Taylor Russell), is more meek and a bit of a loner. When Tyler learns he has a Level 5 SLAP tear in his shoulder, he keeps the secret from his family, which leads them all down a spiral of tragedy that could tear the family apart. 
Dramas are all about the characters, and while that’s essential in making the drama work, it’s more difficult to make it visually interesting. Writer-director Trey Edward Shults made It Comes At Night back in 2017, which I wasn’t a fan of because it was visually and thematically dull. Waves is the exact opposite. Perhaps because it’s a more grounded, contemporary story, but if you think about it, that would actually make it more difficult to make it stylish. There’s gorgeous use of color, with a lot of contrasting blues and reds in the transitions, showing the positive and negative aspects of the family taking over each other, and balancing it out. The production design and costume design are also very colorful, making everything pop. It just feels so alive and atmospheric, giving me flashbacks to Moonlight at times. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross did the score, which is very moody and minimalist, but continues to prove them as two of the best composers working today. The pacing is near perfect, brought to life by careful editing. It’s deliberate and slow at first, but becomes chaotic as the family’s lives come crashing down. This would be an excellent study about the appropriate use of film editing, where you need a certain pace to pull a certain mood out of the audience. In the grand scheme of things, what the characters go through is pretty low stakes, but to them, it’s huge and life changing. Who knew a teenage text message break up could feel so intense and devastating? 
The most interesting thing Shults does visually is changing the aspect ratio throughout. The movie begins in a 1.85 : 1 flat aspect ratio, but when Tyler finds out his shoulder injury with permanently affect his life, along with other life challenges, it widens to a 2:35 : 1 scope ratio. Since the film is projected flat, when the aspect ratio widens, it letterboxes the picture with black bars on the top and bottom of the screen. I didn’t care for Shults’ aspect ratio changes in It Comes at Night, as I found it distracting. I initially found the aspect ratio change jarring here too, but it’s when it changes again during a significant plot development halfway through is where I really got what Shults was going for. The picture then goes down to a sqaure 1.35 : 1 aspect ratio and it’s here I realized we’re supposed to feel like Tyler, like the walls are closing in on us. He starts off worry free, but now his and his family’s lives has irrevocably changed. As the story goes on and the story and character develop, the aspect ratio begins widening again, showing the family becoming freer from their problems. It’s a fascinating way to convey emotions and themes, and also forces Shults to be creative with his framing and camera movements. 
Even then, when the frame is wide, the film is still incredibly intimate, which is also thanks to Shults’ script, which tells the tragic story of a family who need each other to survive, but don’t realize it. It only takes a single scene when the family has lunch at a diner after spending a day together to fully understand their characters and relationship, especially between Ronald and Tyler, which is the main heart of the film. Ronald is one of those “tough love” fathers, but he clearly treats Emily a lot better than Tyler. Every member has their own personal flaws which influence each other’s problems, which eventually affects the whole family. It’s a constant escalation of struggles among every character, and every time you think you know where the story is going to, it throws a curve ball at you. This isn’t your typical family drama in that it doesn’t just have a lot to say, but says it in exciting, emotional, and interesting ways. There’s a revelation around 45-minutes into the film that just hits you like a ton of bricks, which recontextualizes the family’s whole relationship. They all clearly have a love for each other, but there’s just so much conflict that eventually a straw will break the camel’s back. 
The Williams’ feel like an authentic family, which is brought to life by the stunning performances from all involved. Kelvin Harris Jr. is simply astonishing and has to go through so many emotions, selling them all, which is necessary since he’s the linchpin of the story. It’s hard to eventually sympathize with his character, but you’re not really supposed to. You’re supposed to be just be like a parent, and be disappointed by their poor decisions, which Brown and Goldsberry perfectly emulate. They feel like a real married couple who are at their wit’s end, which really was their only destination due to their completely different personalities. Brown feels like one of the more realistic “tough love” fathers out there, where he’s stern and condescending with his kids, but you can genuinely hear the love in his voice, clearly compensating for his own low self-esteem. Goldsberry feels just as authentic, with a heartbreaking performance of a mother who’s trying to keep her family together, but just doesn’t have the means to. Taylor Russell, who played a similar shy character in Escape Room, also perfectly embodies here character. She starts off shy and closed off, especially after the family breaking tragedy, but when similarly kind and shy Luke (Lucas Hedges) befriends her, she can finally open up and feel like herself. While important to the story, the subplot with Luke felt a little tacked on and underdeveloped, but Hedges, as always, delivers the goods to make everything hit home, making for some of the most emotionally heavy scenes. 
Waves is one of the most authentic portrayals of an American family I’ve ever seen. It’s not one I completely relate to, as my family had nowhere near as many issues as the Williams’, but this is a glimpse into the lives of millions of families across the United States. It’s not just a harrowing story, but one that uses excellent technical effects to achieve some engaging visual storytelling. Trey Edward Shults may have not impressed me before, but color me impressed and especially excited for his next project. 

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