Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. A24 releases the film on Friday, November 15.
“Waves” begins with a snapshot of life on the edge — a dizzying 360-degree shot from the center of an SUV speeding down the freeway — and the effect is both liberating and ominous, establishing the visceral intensity of the movie to come. “Waves” asks a lot of its audience as it refashions the material for a tearjerker into a vibrant work deep with feeling.
Trey Shults’ tense third feature positions the turmoil of an African American family in riveting cinematic terms, assembling an audacious saga out of constant motion, fraught exchanges, and a killer soundtrack that never lets up. While the movie risks smothering the heart of its drama in all the movement and noise, the sheer sensory overload often leads to astonishing bursts of emotional sophistication.
“Waves” walks a delicate tonal line with its many ambitious swings, but Shults pulls from his homegrown toolbox, transforming melodramatic material into a sharp and often harrowing psychological thriller about the travails of 21st-century suburban life. Beginning with his breakout debut “Krisha” and continuing with the harrowing post-apocalyptic “It Comes at Night,” Shults has shown a striking ability to build tension through the slow accumulation of dread, injecting familiar domestic circumstances with renewed immediacy. With “Waves,” that tendency reaches an operatic fever pitch.
The movie’s canny trick is the way it begins as one story and branches out in unexpected directions. Its initial hourlong passage tracks the wayward journey of South Florida teen Tyler (a brilliant Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as he struggles with the tough expectations of his virile father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), who lords over Tyler’s wrestling ambitions with a stern gaze and sweaty workout sessions. Tyler’s only respite comes from his romance with classmate Emily (Alexa Demi) and the constant fun-loving party scene that the duo find themselves enjoying each night. Shults’ camera swoops through one montage after another, enmeshed in the wild rhythms of Tyler’s carefree existence, and guided by propulsive compositions from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that blur with the movie’s diegetic sounds.
Harrison has quickly become the preeminent face of disgruntled teenage life, from his alienated wanderer in Shults’ “It Comes at Night” to the rebellious overachiever in “Luce.” With “Waves,” however, he confronts a much trickier balance between the competitive instincts thrust onto him by his father and the freewheeling desire to carve his own path. On one level, Tyler seems as though he’s living in pop culture fever dream. A bundle of muscles and unbridled energy, he bleaches his hair like Frank Ocean (whose music frequently surfaces on a masterfully curated soundtrack) and careens around town with Emily in tow, asserting himself even he isn’t in the ring. But when it comes to the wrestling matches, his father glares down at him from the sidelines, as if regarding the precision of his parental engineering.
Ronald may be a tough dad, but he lords over his son with purpose, and often reminds him of the expectations the world has thrust on the boy by virtue of his blackness alone. “You have to try ten times as hard,” he says. Tyler absorbs this advice by powering ahead, but little by little, new challenges pile up — first in the form of a devastating physical injury that threatens his future, and then with the prospects of a breakup.
These development alone may not seem all that fresh, but “Waves” assembles them in an operatic fashion over the course of a mesmerizing first hour that takes its cues from the character’s jittery subjectivity, and the mounting sense that his world is on the verge of collapse. And when it does, in a jarring explosion of violence, the language of the movie goes with him: In a frantic collage of bitter arguments, physical confrontations, and a sudden, horrific chase through the seemingly tranquil neighborhood after dark, the aspect ratio of the movie shrinks to 1:33, conveying the literal collapse of Tyler’s delicate life. It’s a risky maneuver that could easily melt into messy narrative trickery, but Shults uses it to guide the movie through the apex of trauma and into a very different passage.
In its second half, “Waves” shifts to the aftermath of Tyler’s meltdown, and foregrounds the ensuing alienation visited on his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). At first receding into her solitary world, barely speaking to her parents and avoided by classmates at school, she’s given the chance to open up when approached by the well-intentioned suitor Luke (Lucas Hedges, sweet and scrappy as usual). The prospects of a blossoming relationship provides Emily with the chance to reengage with the world, but as she witnesses the dissolution of her parents’ marriage from afar, she struggles to find her way back into their lives.
Emily’s story has a gentler quality than the first passage, and her developing relationship with Luke lacks the intrigue that dominates Tyler’s story. Whereas “Waves” begins as a rapid-fire evocation of one man’s troubled mind, it shifts into a more schematic approach in search of closure to the story. Luke’s own family troubles, revolving around an estranged parent dying of cancer, force Emily to come to consider her own relationship to her parents. It’s an all-too-handy animating device that seems stitched into the more complex tapestry of the larger picture.
“Waves” borders on grief porn as the hodgepodge of bleak circumstances keep piling up — the tears don’t just flow, they spurt — but even then, it’s salvaged by Shults’ ability to craft rich exchanges about insurmountable difficulties and what it takes to move past them. The movie’s quieter second half owes just as much to its extraordinary performances. In one key scene, Brown’s tasked with simultaneously confessing his flaws and providing moral support for his daughter, blending tenderness with sagacity with remarkable subtlety. “Holding onto that much hate can destroy a person,” he says, evoking the underlying struggles facing everyone in this frantic movie at once.
While “Waves” touches on issues of race and class, its white filmmaker seems to acknowledge his limitations on the issue, and the movie benefits from (mostly) remaining within safe boundaries in that regard. (Though the implications of Hedges’ white character in helping Emily deal with her problems may raise some eyebrows.) Mostly, “Waves” excels at evoking the claustrophobic dimensions of teen life in the 21st century, the way fragments of text messages and social media can fuel more anxiety than a single mind can process. Not for nothing does the movie share some of the creative team behind HBO’s “Euphoria,” including cinematographer Drew Daniels, as both that teens-gone-wild drama and “Waves” evoke their young characters’ undulating fear and angst-riddled frustrations in the framework of a psychological thriller.
Even as Shults’ storytelling takes some rough turns, the movie’s audiovisual tapestry frequently inspires awe. He careens through too many beguiling images to count — from a make-out session in the ocean, set against the backdrop of looming storm clouds, to the gripping point-of-view shot of Ronald and his wife Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) engaged in marital squabbles while their daughter eavesdrops in the next room. There’s so much vision and craft on display to suggest Shults thought he might never get away with it all again.
“Waves” was initially mislabeled as a musical when news of its production first came out, and there’s a definite musicality to its structure: With the soundtrack careening from Kendrick Lamar to Animal Collective to Radiohead, the movie glides along as if it exists within the same abstract plane as the melodies themselves. These cues provide constantly add to the complexity of an experience often less about the sum of its parts than its ability to hover in the frantic moment. To that end, it’s a definitive statement on the present moment, evoking the sheer horror of every uncertain exchange, and the courage involved in moving ahead regardless of what it means for the future.
“Waves” premiered at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival. A24 will release it theatrically on November 15, 2019.