By Mark Saldana

Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)

As usual, this year’s Austin Film Festival featured an exciting lineup of movies, but definitely offered some great headliners which may be considered for accolades at the year’s end. The one film which seriously blew me away came from writer/director Trey Edward Shults. Shults originally caught my attention and earned my praise with his astoundingly powerful film Krisha. Shults followed up with the riveting horror entry It Comes At Night.

Though I very much liked the movie and continued to appreciate his talent as a filmmaker, the movie just didn’t have the same impact as his freshman feature film. When I found out that his new film, Waves, would screen at AFF this year, I excitedly anticipated his newest entry. Well, as I said above, Waves did not disappoint whatsoever. Shults has returned to top form with a tremendous movie which offers a compelling and emotional portrait of a family dealing with some very trying times.

In a wealthy/more-privileged area in Florida, African-American high school senior Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) should have a bright future ahead. As a star athlete on his school’s wrestling team, he has the opportunity to score some major scholarships and attend the school of his choice. Though this life sounds like a dream, the reality is that the pressures to win are pushed even further by his overbearing father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). The trouble begins when Tyler suffers a serious injury which could derail what is expected from him. How he deals with his uncertain future and new obstacles can have a resounding impact on those closest to him, particularly his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) .

Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves is not only one of the best films of the year, it is certainly my favorite film of this year’s Austin Film Festival. Shults has created a powerful and emotional cinematic experience that questions the priorities of families in this world, especially in America. It is an exceptional portrait that pulls no punches and is sure to floor audiences. At the same time, it offers people a bright ray of hope despite the haunting and disturbing territory it explores.

Shults and his director of photography Drew Daniels present this tremendous story with remarkable artistry. Their work gives the film a unique look that superbly enhances the emotions of the characters. It gives the audience a more candid and focused experience that is evocative without ever distracting.

Shults and casting director Avy Kaufman have gathered together a phenomenal cast to flesh out the movie’s characters. Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who also worked with Shults on the script, gives an incredible performance as Tyler. The young actor gives a tremendous turn as a driven and pressured high school star who experiences a difficult challenge which crushes his life’s expectations. Sterling K. Brown offers some outstanding acting as Tyler’s strict and tough father Ronald, a man who has succeeded in life despite his own personal struggles.

Taylor Russell also shines brightly as Tyler’s shy, but tremendously sweet younger sister Emily. Her acting in this film is a thing of beauty to behold which is appropriate as her character is so full of love and grace. One talented actor who often steals his scenes, is Lucas Hedges who gives a highly lovable and often hilarious turn as Emily’s love interest Luke. His charmingly awkward and sincere character offers some much needed light and levity to an otherwise dark and often dour movie.

So, once again Trey Edward Shults has made an amazing film. Since Waves has much in common with Krisha, it appears that the family drama is a subgenre in which he excels. Still, I would love to see the talented filmmaker stretch out and do something completely different. Either way, the gifted director will continue to remain on my radar and I sincerely look forward to his next movie.

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