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‘Waves’ immerses us in a family unaware of the trouble ahead

This beautiful and pensive drama begins with perfect little moments introducing us to the Florida teens and their parents, but heartbreaking moments follow.

A hair touchup becomes a romantic moment for teens Alexis (Alexa Demie) and Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in “Waves.”
A hair touchup becomes a romantic moment for teens Alexis (Alexa Demie) and Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in “Waves.”
A24

Seems like nearly every other scene in “Waves” takes us to the water, in so many different ways.

A troubled high school athlete soaking his physical and emotional pain passes out in the bathtub, the water cascading over the edges.

A young couple lost in love sits on bench mounted on the edge of the ocean.

Another young couple takes a bath together. They share a kiss in the night with lawn sprinklers shooting all around. She climbs a tree and dives into a pond, with him below, reassuring her she’ll be OK. They swim with manatees. They run on a pier and dive into the water together.

A father goes fishing with his teenage daughter. A father goes fishing alone.

Sometimes the water is a soothing presence. Sometimes it makes for a comedic moment. Sometimes it’s a means of escape.

When we first meet the Williamses in writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ beautiful and pensive and heartbreaking “Waves,” they appear to be living the dream as a close-knit African-American family in upper-middle-class suburban Florida.

With a pulsating, electric and energized score by the great tandem of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross setting the beat, the camera dances through the lives of the family:

• Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Tyler is a star high school wrestler with loads of talent and charm.

• Tyler’s young sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who is smart and sweet and shy.

• Sterling K. Brown’s Ronald, a former elite athlete who runs a successful construction company and pushes his son to the limits, constantly reminding him they have to be 10 times better than everyone else just to get ahead and stay ahead.

• Renee Elise Goldsberry’s Catharine, who married Ronald when the kids were quite young (their biological mother died of an overdose) and has been a loving mom to the kids through the years.

In the early going, “Waves” is filled with perfect little moments, all designed to immerse us in the world of these lovely people.

When Tyler’s girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) touches up his signature blond hairdo, he gets lost in her eyes and they kiss, and you can dismiss their teenage romance if you’d like, but remember what it was like when YOU were 18 and in love? Yeah, that was real.

When a partied-out Tyler briefly nods off in church, the look on his father’s face waiting for him when he’s nudged awake is scary as heck, and also hilarious. When the family goes to breakfast after church, the casual banter and the loving verbal jabs and the warm laughs they share — yes, this is a family. This is a wonderful family. They’ve got it all.

But soon we begin to see signs of the tidal wave of trouble ahead.

Tyler lies to his parents about the severity of a shoulder injury that could end his wrestling career. He starts stealing his father’s painkillers to mask the pain and is soon gobbling them like M&M’s.

Alexis has missed her period and might be pregnant. Tyler’s reaction to the situation goes from disappointing to terrible to horrific.

I don’t want to reveal any more about the consequences of the aforementioned developments, other than to say about halfway through the movie, the story shifts focus from Tyler to the almost forgotten little sister, Emily.

Taylor Russell gives an endearing performance as introverted teen Emily in “Waves.”
A24

Taylor Russell gives one of the most endearing and authentic and touching performances of the year as Emily, who has lived in her big brother’s shadow for most of her life and yet doesn’t resent her father for virtually ignoring her while trying to mold Tyler into the second coming of Ronald.

Maybe Emily prefers it that way. She spends a lot of time in her room, with her cat, listening to music. She seems shocked when the awkward, aw-shucks Luke (Lucas Hedges), a wrestling teammate of Tyler’s, asks her out — even though as Luke points out, HE’S the one who’s out of his league.

The 25-year-old Russell is actually more convincing as a high schooler than the 22-year-old Hedges, but they’re terrific together. The more Emily and Luke learn about each other’s family history, the more they lean on each other. We can’t help but root for these two to make it.

To say this film doesn’t follow a conventional narrative is putting it mildly. One can understand how some viewers will be thrown off, maybe even put off, by the radical change in plot course midway down the stream.

I found it to be a fresh and bold and immensely effective choice.