The camera doesn’t just move in “Waves,” it hurtles with terrific urgency. As you’re swept up in the immersive motion, the kinetic energy, you notice the passing beauty of the images, their compositional elegance. Mostly, though, you just try to keep up as voices boom and the camera pushes in, pulls out, flows in circles or sprints forward. This great whoosh creates a contact high even if, as one shot rapidly gives way to another, it feels as if time is running out.
A domestic melodrama in an anguished key, “Waves” is the story of a Florida family nearly undone by a shocking tragedy. It’s also a spectacular testament to the talents of the writer-director Trey Edward Shults, making just his third feature-length movie. As in his estimable debut, “Krisha” (2016), about a woman having an epic meltdown at a family Thanksgiving, Shults has created a deep, at times overwhelming sensory experience. With sinuous cinematography and an intricate sound design — floods of saturated color, bursts of ear-pounding music — he expresses intensities of feeling (love, pain, fury, agony) that create a visceral emotional impact.
The story in “Waves” is tragic, blunt; it turns on a catastrophic mistake and its devastating aftermath. Bookended by the image of a girl riding a bike alone, it unfolds in two neatly complementary sections. The first pivots on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black 17-year-old student and wrestler struggling to keep the fast-moving parts of his life in balance. He’s an appealing kid, no longer a child yet not quite a man. By turns industrious and restless, dutiful and disobedient, he is also graced with sensitivities that his carefully constructed wall of muscles can’t obscure.
In the first half, Shults keeps close to Tyler, creating a palpable intimacy — the director of photography is Drew Daniels — that locks you in with the character, his upper-middle-class home and larger world. Tyler is often on the move and you’re right there with him, whether he’s driving with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie), lifting weights with his stern father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), or sharing a private moment with his sympathetic stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Harrison movingly exteriorizes Tyler’s mercurial emotions, shifting between adolescent bravura and childlike woundedness, and later tapping into the sorrow and rage that engulf him.