DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The 31-year-old writer-director Trey Edward Shults won great acclaim and the top prize of the 2015 South by Southwest film festival for his debut feature, "Krisha." His new movie, "Waves," is a family drama complicated by tragedy. It stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a Florida teenager and Taylor Russell as his younger sister. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The emotionally turbulent drama "Waves" revolves around an African American family living in South Florida. And I mean revolves quite literally - in an early scene, the camera swivels a full 360 degrees around the inside of a car as a teenager named Tyler Williams and his girlfriend Alexis drive along the oceanfront. Tyler, played by a mesmerizing Kelvin Harrison Jr., is a high school wrestling star with a bright-looking future. And the camera, whether racing alongside him on a field or crashing down next to him on the wrestling mat, seems to draw on his youthful energy.
The writer-director Trey Edward Shults has a gift for turning dramatic ideas into visual ones. "Waves" is his grandest and most ambitious picture yet. But like his earlier features, "Krisha" and "It Comes At Night," it's about the fragility of the American family. Shults' style has some of the raw, ragged intimacy of John Cassavetes, but also the dreamy poetry of Terrence Malick, whom he worked with years ago. His camera is alive to the lush beauty and sweltering heat of his Florida setting, and it's magnetized by the intense physicality of his actors.
The camera begins to slow down when Tyler gets home and mumbles a half-hearted greeting to his family. Renee Elise Goldsberry plays his loving stepmother, Catharine, and Taylor Russell plays his sensitive younger sister, Emily. Tyler has the closest but also the most difficult relationship with his father, Ronald, a gruff authoritarian played with soulful gravity by Sterling K. Brown. Ronald is hard on his son, always correcting his behavior and pushing him to do better, whether they're lifting weights together in their home gym or having an argument about Tyler's work ethic.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAVES")
STERLING K BROWN: (As Ronald Williams) I said it before. I'll say it again. The world don't give a [expletive] about you or me. We are not afforded the luxury of being average. Got to work 10 times as hard just to get anywhere. Listen, I don't push you because I want to. I push you because I have to. Do you hear what I'm saying, son? Do you hear what I'm saying?
KELVIN HARRISON JR: (As Tyler Williams) Yeah.
CHANG: This is one of just a few moments in which the movie directly addresses the subject of racism. There's a later one too when a stranger hurls an anti-black slur at Tyler. But for the most part, the tensions tearing at the Williams family come from within. This is a sad, sweeping story about the seemingly unbridgeable gap that can open up between parents and their children. It's also about the desperation that can set in when life doesn't go according to plan.
Tyler starts to experience a nagging soreness in his shoulder. A doctor's visit confirms that he has severe muscle damage, spelling the possible end of his wrestling career. Around the same time, his girlfriend Alexis informs him that she's pregnant and wants to keep the baby. This might sound contrived on paper, but I like the way that "Waves" doesn't shy away from melodrama. And Shults' filmmaking is so propulsive that you're carried along at every moment. He puts you inside Tyler's head, making palpable his confusion and anger as everything begins to spiral out of control.
I won't say anything more about the tragic turn that follows, partly because I don't want to spoil it and partly because Tyler's experience turns out to be only half the story. "Waves" understands that men tend to hog the spotlight in families, in relationships, in sports and in movies. And so it's both pointed and deeply moving when the plot suddenly ruptures and the perspective shifts to Emily, who tells her story in the movie's second half.
Emily is as shy and reserved as her brother was brash and reckless. And Taylor Russell acts with a quiet sensitivity that counterbalances Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s brooding fury. But before long, Emily catches the eye of a classmate named Luke, played with puppyish (ph) sweetness by Lucas Hedges, who charms her and coaxes her out of her shell. Their initial flirtation blossoms into a real relationship as they bond over burgers and hang out with friends. They also connect over their shared understanding of the pain that family can bring.
There's a wrenching scene in which Ronald confesses his failings as a father and reaffirms his love for Emily, whom he has too often ignored. He proceeds to recite a few words from the Book of Proverbs which beautifully encompass the movie and its emotional extremes - hatred stirs up strife, but love covers up all offenses.
Shults isn't peddling easy redemption. He's trying to show us what it looks like for a family to try to heal in the aftermath of tragedy. As a technical display, "Waves" is awfully impressive. As an emotional experience, it's simply enormous. It begins in exuberance before moving through rage and despair. But by the end, it has achieved what feels like a state of grace.
BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. On Monday's show, our guest will be actor Robert Pattinson, who stars opposite Willem Dafoe in the gothic horror film "The Lighthouse." Pattinson became a teen heartthrob for his role as a vampire in the "Twilight" films. He's gone on to work with David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.