Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults first paints for us a happy, productive family.  The Dad (Sterling K. Brown) owns a busy construction business, but is also very active in his son's life.  Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) works hard at his high school wrestling, with his Dad supervising his workouts and even literally going to the mat with him.  Tyler also has a younger sister named Emily (Taylor Russell, who fades into the background early but comes to the fore later), and a Stepmom, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry).  The family goes to church together.  They live in a nice suburban home and drive a late-model SUV.  They seem almost idyllic.  Until they're not.

            Tyler does train hard, physically, but he also goes out with his friends and indulges in some substances not recommended for teenagers or athletes.  He has a girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), and they seem to be very sweet to each other, until they hit a speed bump in their relationship, and they call each other names they can't take back.  Tyler is trying to hide a shoulder injury that his doctor has told him is very serious and needs immediate surgery, or else there will be permanent damage.  So now the fissures are exposed on this otherwise-perfect relational landscape.  And subsequent events cause the pressure which turns the cracks in the seams into rips in the fabric.

            Writer/Director Shults inserts a sort of moody, dreamlike filmography at times, taking us out of the dialogue and into a reflection about the ripple effect of the characters' actions.  One decision then affects the next one, and the subsequent destabilization threatens the well-being of all.

            But after the first act ends in chaos, Emily develops a relationship with a boyfriend, Luke (Lucas Hedges), who begins to help her emotionals heal, in part by allowing her to help him with his own.  It's not exactly happily ever after, but it's a tentative step toward a new normal after the rug has been pulled out from under you.

            Mr. Shults creates characters that feel real to us.  We can identify with their emotions, and we think we understand their motivations, even when they're their own worst enemies.  Mr. Shults does not hold back on the language, or on the “mature situations.”  But his casting and direction present us with strong performances, and a raw, edgy look at a “typical” suburban family attempting to recover from its own implosion.  It's not exactly fun, and sometimes the intensity feels overwhelming.  But you just might leave wanting to know more about what happened to the characters, which is the true sign of an impactful film.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association