Dec 4, 2019

The fall of a wealthy family for reasons known to even the non-wealthy. One of th best of the year.


Grade: A-

Director: Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night)

Screenplay: Shults

Cast: Taylor Russell (Lost in Space), Kelvin Harrison Jr (Luce)

Rating: R

Runtime: 2 h 15 min

By: John DeSando

“We are not afforded the luxury of being average.” Ron (Sterling K. Brown) to son, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)

For the disintegration of an upper-middle-class black family in Miami, blame could be heaped on dad Ron for pushing his son to be a state wrestling champion. However, most of us know that plenty of responsibility for dysfunction can be spread around the table.

Writer/director Trey Edward Shults’s emotionally-intense and smartly-produced Waves chronicles the rise and fall of the African-American Williams family. A few of the melodramatic tropes stick around, such as the successful, popular family members until a tragedy-tears-them-apart motif.  Even their semi-successful struggle against the corruptions of suburban wealth has been seen before.

However, Shults infuses such individuality and caring in his characters that audiences must go along with the journey and suffer as each family member deals with the vagaries of living. Indeed, what happens is frequently what always happens to families, maybe not as severely but every bit as wrenching and painful. Just look around at your Thanksgiving table to see the heartache of each member, save none.

Drew Daniels’s cinematography is powerful, right down to the obligatory teen-age car scenes, which he infuses with a vigor only a twirling camera can frame. Helping to keep the lyrical but precise-matching mood and action is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s music and Isaac Hagy and Shults’s chiaroscuro editing, which makes sense of the multiple images piling up.

Although Shults tries to keep from preaching about the sins of a maladjusted family, the film, like life, teaches the pitfalls of selfishness and wealth, despite good intentions, such as Dad’s. What happens to the family individually and collectively happens often even to loving families.

The tragedy and ensuing disintegration, however, aim at reconnection and rebirth, not without considerable pain and difficult love. Waves is one of the best movies of the year and one of the most emotionally involving ever.

This is a family story worthy of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Happy holidays.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at