We live, says a pastor in an early scene in “Waves,” in a world full of hate. “We need love,” he intones, “to bring people back.”
Trey Edward Schultz’s third feature (his previous films are “Krisha” and “It Comes at Night”) movingly illustrates exactly that: how love can pull us from the brink, saving us, lighting us up. At its center are the Williamses, an upper-middle-class family in suburban Florida. Tyler (a magnetic Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the elder of two children, is an achiever: a star high-school wrestler, a musician, a popular kid happily in love with his pretty girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). His father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) pushes him hard, to the dismay of his mother Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry); meanwhile, his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell) mostly just watches. And then, a terrible event occurs.
“Waves” is essentially split in two parts: before and after. Told by an intoxicatingly swirling camera (the creative and often beautiful cinematography is by Drew Daniels) and accompanied by a rich musical soundtrack ranging from Dinah Washington to Frank Ocean and Radiohead, the story has a sense of constant movement. We disappear into the color and brightness of Tyler’s life — a swoony twilight scene on an indigo-lit beach, with Alexis, is the very picture of romance — even as darkness seems to slowly close in. Eventually, the movie blacks out, after a scene so painful you can hardly bear to watch it; slowly, in Emily’s hands, we return to the light.
Schultz has a lovely way of telling a just-on-the-verge-of-melodramatic story on a very human level; his camera gets lost in the faces, the flashing sirens, the immediacy of two young people finding a home with each other. There’s a text message, near the end, that just about did me in with its gentle kindness. And one gorgeous, wordless scene appears twice in the movie, letting us wallow in it: a young woman on her bike, on a sunny day, coasting as she stands up on the pedals, reveling in the warm air on her face, pedaling home.
★★★½ “Waves,” with Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry. Written and directed by Trey Edward Schultz. 135 minutes. Rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence — all involving teens. Opens Nov. 27 at SIFF Cinema Egyptian.