When I see movies at the Middleburg Film Festival, I make it a tradition to keep myself in the dark as much as possible, so as to keep the surprise intact. I read the plot descriptions so that I know what to expect, and that’s pretty much it. In the case of Waves, I only knew a couple of small details: it’s distributed by the studio A24, whose track record has highly impressed me thus far; and it stars Sterling K. Brown, whom I really like on This Is Us. And when it comes to a movie like Waves, knowing those little details and not much else really paid off.

I want you to be as surprised as I was when I saw this movie, so I’ll go light on the plot synopsis. In a nutshell, the story is centered on a family. This family consists of a father named Ronald (Sterling K. Brown); a mother named Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry); a son named Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr., of It Comes At Night), and a daughter named Emily (Taylor Russell, of Netflix’s Lost in Space). Without revealing anything, I will say that this family goes through some rather intense times, but ultimately are drawn closer by their harsh circumstances. Sounds pretty generic, I know, but trust me, it’s anything but.

Without a doubt, this movie’s most impressive aspect is the acting (and I’m not just saying that because I met most of the cast at a Q&A and can testify that they are really down-to-Earth people). Brown is great in his role as a domineering but unquestionably caring father, and although his relationship with Goldsberry isn’t given a great deal of time on screen, she does an impressive job as well.

But what really took me by surprise was the talent displayed by the younger stars. In a sense, they’re the ones who carry the film, because they are the characters whose perspectives we experience the story’s events through, so they more than anyone else have to be up to the task of giving a solid performance. They confidently excel, making the audience consider their circumstances in multiple different ways.

The script, written by director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night), makes a pretty distinct narrative shift at the halfway point that I feel has the potential to divide audiences when the film hits theaters. Some will be really into it, and it may lose others. As for me, it reminded me of another film, The Place Beyond the Pines, but executed in a far smoother fashion. Again, without giving away anything, I think the difference that makes it work in Waves is how much easier it was for me to connect with the characters. I really like them and want to see their story unfold, even if it’s now doing so in a slightly different way.

If my spoiler-cautious description of the script is sounding a little too vague, let’s talk about something that I can dive a little deeper into: the visual style. The cinematography and use of color are both striking and play in sync with each other quite nicely. Drew Daniels, the director of photography for both of Shults’ previous films, opens the film with an impressive 360 degree shot in the interior of a car, reminiscent of the famous shot from Children of Men (except way less horrific) and then just keeps the gorgeous shots coming on a steady flow. On a rare occasion a shot will hold for too long or cut too early, but that’s more of an editing problem than a filming one, and it’s a very minor problem at that.

The soundtrack is a very interesting one. It’s been described as a playlist for the characters’ emotional states, and that’s a very apt description indeed. Shults employs a lot of his own favorite songs, featuring artists such as A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, and a lot more (those are just the ones that I knew), each one fitting with its selected scene and ramping up in intensity as the characters’ circumstances do the same. I think younger viewers in their late teens will likely connect with the contemporary tunes more than I did, but that’s more of a personal preference matter, not really an issue with the film itself. I like older music, and there’s not a lot of that here, but for what the filmmakers were going for, I think the intended effect of having the mood of the music parallel with the mood of the film was achieved marvelously.

Waves is a pretty intense film, but if any of what I’ve described sounds intriguing to you, I would definitely advise you to give it a shot. The powerful acting, expert cinematography, and wide range of music combine to craft an experience that is uniquely moving, and I can’t wait to hear what other people think of this movie. I’m giving Waves three and a half out of four stars.

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