Waves **

A South Florida family's opioid-fueled disintegration is depicted with clear-eyed compassion, and all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, in this impressionistic stumble from “It Comes at Night” writer-director Trey Edward Shults. An ambitious overreach.

Is it worth $10? No

“Waves,” a South Florida odyssey filled with distinctly South Florida iconography, begins on a note of invigorating elation. Tyler Williams, a popular student athlete poised to become a high school wrestling titan, is out and about with his girlfriend Alexa. Their car trip, lensed in a gung-ho 360-degree take, underlines their lust for life. The possibilities are endless, their futures brighter than the sun.

You see these happy lovebirds, writer-director Trey Edward Shults appears to ask viewers? Now watch as I deprive them of everything that brings them joy. In minute, agonizing detail.

It's a tall order for any filmmaker, but the Central Florida-based Shults, who, at 31, already has three features under his belt, is determined to pull off the herculean task of making this hard-hitting domestic drama come to life with kinetic flair. For a while, he does just that. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his seemingly harmonious family command your attention with lived-in immediacy.

And then he gradually turns up the dial to 11, causing the freewheeling style to drown out everything else. He piles on one crisis after another, until an already overstuffed movie begins to burst at the seams and leaves you begging for a time out.

It's a real shame, because Shults' prowess, his way around the medium, is on ample display everywhere in “Waves.” Take, for instance, how he introduces Ronald (the esteemed Sterling K. Brown) Taylor's domineering dad, his enterprising stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and shy baby sis Emily (Taylor Russell). In a few broad strokes, the filmmaker establishes the dynamic that drives this well-to-do household. The Williams clan is a churchgoing unit, upstanding citizens who also know how to let their hair down, even as the cracks begin to show pretty early on. Ronald, a former athlete himself, pushes Tyler to strive for perfection on the mat, revealing a rigid disciplinarian beneath the progressive-dad demeanor.

Meanwhile, Tyler is dealing with a torn shoulder ligament, but when his doctor tells him he needs to bow out of upcoming tournaments, the teen won't hear of it. And he also keeps the news to himself, opting to take solace from the excruciating pain by borrowing some of Daddy's Oxy. The lines of communication are clogged, Shults conveys in a way that renders the characters' metastasizing malaise from the inside out, not as a timely issue to be squared away. The intimacy feels so organic that it never crossed this critic's mind while seeing the film that this is a portrait of an African American family made by a white filmmaker.

But rather than trust his character arcs to sustain his epic-sized narrative, Shults injects some clichéd plot turns that stick out like a sore thumb precisely because they're at odds with his lyrical brand of naturalism. Tyler's relationship with Alexa (Alexis Demie) takes a rather manufactured turn for the worse, and from that point, “Waves” assaults the audience with a heavy-handed spiral into chaos. Changing aspect ratios enhance those walls closing in on Tyler, co much so that the filmmaker crosses the line from audacious to pretentious. Shults is borrowing from the right sources. “Waves” bears the influence of directors like John Cassavettes and Larry Clark, whose 2001 drama “Bully” was also set in Broward County. But the overwrought escalation he tries here doesn't feel earned, and it undermines strong work from the cast.


It would be next to impossible for any movie to recover from such a misstep, but Shults gives it the old college try. “Waves” switches gears and shifts the focus from Taylor to Emily. Rough seas give way to calmer waters as the younger character embarks on her own romance with fellow student Luke (Lucas Hedges). The scene where he asks her out for the first time is awkward and cringe-inducing in the best possible way. Both teens have daddy issues, something that could have proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for other people but here has a decidedly less toxic effect.

“Waves'” more sedate second half washes over you like a tonic from the overkill that precedes it, but it doesn't do enough to eliminate the bitter aftertaste. It doesn't help that Shults is unable to give Emily much of an inner life (and no, repeated navel-gazing shots of her playing with her cat don't count). Faring even worse is Catherine, whose crumbling emotional state is more mentioned by other characters than explored head on.

Shults aims to take viewers on a journey predominantly comprised of peaks and valleys with not enough attention devoted to those in-between moments. As a viewer, the way he pummels you into submission is not unlike a verbally abusive significant other who sees fit to take the gloves off repeatedly, then whispers sweet nothings in an effort to get you to forgive their trespasses. No such luck here. It's a bridge too far in a movie that could have used fewer visual curlicues and a lot more restraint.

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