Critics love Waves, but its racial politics, challenging style may make it too risky to succeed

Waves has received standing ovations, rave reviews and early awards nominations, but it's not without controversy. Can the film succeed despite being unconventional, and for being another story of black Americans told by a white director?

The film's plot is derived from writer-director Trey Edward Shults's and actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s lives

Without a variety of black stories, 'you're dehumanizing us,' says Waves' Kelvin Harrison Jr.

4 years ago
Duration 3:56
Featured VideoWaves director Trey Edward Shults and star Kelvin Harrison Jr. discuss the film and whether a white director can tell black people's stories.

Waves has had a pretty good run so far. A standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival, rave reviews from the Washington Post, the New York Times and Rolling Stone, and Oscar buzz that only seems to grow around a cast that is, essentially, full of Hollywood newcomers.

And that was all before it even opened.

From writer-director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes At Night, Krisha) Waves is, at its heart, a family drama about a teen boy's poor choices and his sister's attempt to rebuild their lives. It premiered on Friday, making it the latest offering from production house A24 — which has, in only the last six months, released The Farewell, The Lighthouse and Midsommar, among other films.

Even following those impressive acts, Waves is still one of its most anticipated movies of the year, particularly after its trailer generated award-show buzz. And that's despite controversy surrounding how the story is told, and how the film was created. 

Some reviews have criticized both the film's style and its substance. The Globe and Mail, for instance, gave its takeaway a straightforward headline: "Waves is a hollow attempt at selling black lives as cultural product."

Told in two parts with two separate lead actors — one of those parts commanded by breakout Vancouver-born actress Taylor Russell — Waves is unconventional for standard box-office fare. It constantly changes aspect ratio throughout the film, blankets its story so completely with music by Kanye West, Frank Ocean, H.E.R. and other musicians it was originally pitched as a "dramatic musical" and draws its plot directly from both Shults's and lead actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s lives. 

And while most reviews have used words like "gripping," "staggering" and "beautiful" to describe it — the movie currently has an 88 per cent "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes — one aspect has been a sticking point for others.

Waves, like The Last Black Man in San Francisco before it, is a film about black lives, told by a white writer.

"We are not afforded the luxury of being average," Ronald (played by Sterling K. Brown) tells his son Tyler (Harrison) at one point early on in the movie. Ronald is explaining how, as a black man, Tyler will have to work "ten times harder" than anyone else just to get anywhere. As the movie progresses — like fellow A24-darling Moonlight in 2016 — Waves goes on to follow a young African-American man struggling with the problems of being a young African-American man in South Florida.

"That's why I think it had to start at the writing phase," Shults told CBC in an interview when asked whether it was difficult to tell a black man's story as a white writer.

Shults explained how he and Harrison consulted each other on the finer points of the script over eight months, having what he called "therapy sessions" to address both the "commonalities in [their] experiences, and specific differences."

Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults says he collaborated on the script for Waves with star Kelvin Harrison Jr. over the course of eight months. (Derek Hooper/CBC)

"If it feels right, real, authentic," Shults said, "it's all because of [Harrison] and that collaboration."

Harrison pushes back against the notion that a white writer can't tell a story about people of colour.

"We talk a lot about should only black directors direct stories about black people, and I just think the answer is no," Harrison said in his own interview with CBC.

"If you seek to understand my walk of life and you want to understand me personally and you take the time and do the research and have the conversations and you show that you love and recognize me as a person, then that's all it takes."

A challenge in more ways than one

In this, as well as its use of sound and unconventional storytelling methods, Waves is a risk. Even filming posed unique challenges: the story was so difficult to put together that editing took over a year, and the shoot so technically complex that the bond company insuring it said it would be impossible to complete.

Shults acknowledges that the film's unconventional aspects challenge how far mainstream audiences are willing to go, especially with such a huge focus on franchise films — like the Marvel movies — that bring in audiences who know what to expect.

"It's harder to get people to see them," Shults said of the type of movie he tried to create. That could be reflected in an early warning sign: despite the huge support among critics and early predictions that the movie would perform well in the awards circuit, Waves generated only a single nomination for the Film Independent Spirit Awards: a best supporting female nod for 25-year-old Russell's performance as Emily, Tyler's younger sister. 

Harrison did receive a nomination for best male lead, but for another movie: Julius Onah's Luce

Russell — daughter of actor Dean McKenzie, best known for his portrayal of Sgt. Cross in the Need For Speed video game series — has been cited as one of the standout performances, even though she is perhaps the least-known actor in the film's cast.

Taylor Russell in Waves. The Canadian actress carries the second half of the film, which follows two characters with largely separate stories. (Elevation Pictures)

It's just one more unlikely thing about a movie defined by its unlikely aspects, which is why — whether Waves succeeds or fails — it will be in spite of something.

If it succeeds, it will be in spite of a challenging narrative, controversial script and unfamiliar cinematography. If it fails, it will be in spite of a huge amount of buzz, well-regarded performances and rave reviews from critics.