Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Sterling K. Brown as members of a family living in South Florida who navigate love, forgiveness, falling apart, and coming together in the aftermath of a horrible accident and consequential loss.
Though the book has not been closed on his journey, Trey Edward Shults is currently going down as one of the most interesting filmmakers out there. One could write off two of his high-profile films, It Comes at Night and Waves, as very “A24”, due to the production company behind having a brand of experimental, genre-bending dramas that feature uncommon aspect ratios and ambiguous storytelling. It’s true that It Comes At Night is a strong example for what A24 is attracted to as a studio, but this is not to diminish Shults’ abilities as a filmmaker to take straightforward story ideas and make them as different as possible. However, in the case of Waves, a straightforward approach might have been better.
Waves is a story split into two distinct halves. The first half follows Harrison Jr.’s Tyler, a star of the high school wrestling team. He’s an aspirational and dedicated athlete who struggles to connect emotionally with his Dad and spends most of his free time with his girlfriend Alexis. Tyler is secretly suffering from a major shoulder joint tear, and this injury ruins his wrestling career, alienating his father and sends him spiralling down a horrible path of the worst kinds of mistakes. His girlfriend ends up getting pregnant, which causes their relationship to crack over whether or not abortion is the best option, and in a daze of intoxication, Tyler tracks Alexis down on prom night and violently pushes her, causing her to fall and smash her head against concrete killing her instantly. Tyler is soon arrested and sentence to life in prison. This is the halfway point of the film.
Our focus then shifts to his younger sister Emily, who draws further inward out of guilt of not stopping her brother in his actions and the constant outpouring of love for Alexis’ memory and hatred for Tyler on social media. She begins to connect with the honest and kind Luke (Lucas Hedges), developing a relationship with him as she starts to confess and open up more to her remaining family even as they crack at the seems of living with Tyler’s mistakes. Luke has his own father issues which Emily helps him with, and everything ends somewhat hopeful for this dysfunctional family.
I don’t enjoy when critics explain the plot in a review instead of actually discussing opinions over a film’s execution or developments, but Waves needs a breakdown of what takes place. It is an unconventional effort to tell this story in two distinct halves focusing on two characters who only make brief appearances in their opposite halves, but I give Shults credit for wanting to find a stronger way to tell the story of grief and regret from multiple sides. What is most frustrating is that both halves should be their own stories instead of competing for narrative importance or relevance when everything is over. Both are great ideas to explore but in trying to fit them into one two hour film, many ideas and characters get left to the wayside and obvious emotional climaxes are rendered mute and almost objective.
Specifically, the theme of dealing with your father is something that both Tyler and Alexis deal with in different ways, whether its Tyler butting heads with dominant Dad Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) or Alexis watching from afar as boyfriend Luke tries to visit his dying father and reconciling with the abuse and trauma Luke suffered at his hands. However, Tyler’s story is cut short before reconciliation or actual effects of his relationship with his Dad can be experienced, and Luke just appears out of nowhere in the second half and his story feels superfluous to what Alexis is directly going through in the aftermath of Tyler’s imprisonment. We’re left feeling uneven at this clunky execution of brilliant on-paper ideas that have been given the time in other films to truly breathe.
None of this is to the detriment of these actors giving solid performances, with Kelvin Harrison Jr. once again shining bright as one of our most-talented young actors (his lead performance in Luce was one of the best I saw in 2019). Taylor Russell needs to carry the rest of Waves after Harrison Jr. exits and she does so beautifully, delivering those hard questions people would ask in the aftermath of tragedy in these eloquent fashions and bouncing off quite well with the always great Lucas Hedges. Brown and Goldsberry often feel forgotten by the story, but do have a few moments to shine through and explore those darker elements of the movie driving both characters.
Waves is also undoubtedly a beautifully-shot film. Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels use a similar shifting aspect ratio idea that drove the second half of It Comes at Night to a claustrophobic conclusion, here utilising three distinct changes that reflect the increasing weight and subsequent elevation of emotional tension from the tension, as well as dynamic lighting, stark colourisation and bewildering movements that grant a propulsion that helps increase our focus and attention to the story. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is pared back and kept at a rumbling distance for most proceedings, becoming noticeable and thrilling when Tame Impala’s “Be Above It” scores Tyler’s descent, which is then extended and remixed seamlessly into original pieces by Ross and Reznor.
Waves is two captivating pieces of drama that feel incomplete and unnecessarily slapped together. It feels as if Shults had two great ideas for how to explore the descent of a young life and the aftermath of accidental self-destruction, struggled to develop either as their own story, then squished both together to make them fit as a whole. This doesn’t work because the themes and characters are left open and empty without natural conclusions, with the story’s pacing all over the place and thus leaving those intentionally emotional moments rendering as cold. A handsome technical production with some magnificent performances, but I left Waves feeling rather disappointed at the inability to deliver a complete emotional experience as the filmmakers were obviously intending.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Cast: Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie
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