An ambitious, sensory explosion of pathos.
Life is a tide-to-tide crash of love and loss, tragedy and grace. Adversity both unites us and breaks the foundations – and in Trey Edward Shults’ third feature, those forces radiate like a hyper-coloured supernova at the core of a crumbling family unit.
We’re thrown into Waves like a beach gale, super-accentuated visuals popping from the explosion of movement and sound. It’s a serene set-up for this South Floridian, African-American family: Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a high-school wrestling prodigy, has the world at his fingertips.
Albeit under the tough tutelage of his taskmaster father (a blistering performance from Sterling K. Brown), his daily life unravels with typical teendom harmony – focusing on himself, his spiralling ego and girlfriend, while acknowledging his parents with carefree, low-effort remarks. Meanwhile, his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) lives a much quieter – but content – life in the background.
Shults’ previous work, the brilliantly disquieting It Comes At Night, was sedate and brooding. This time, the camera moves boldly and wildly – circling car interiors, dynamically soaring across rooms and even sprinklers with music video tenacity. Then there’s the illustrious soundtrack: Frank Ocean, Tame Impala, Kanye West and Radiohead, to name but of the artists setting a vibe.
Its beauty, however, is a stage for a cinematic ticking time-bomb: as Tyler dangerously buries a life-damaging injury with painkillers to keep up the charade, his relationship with his dad grows more fickle with each conflict (it’s a stunning, bare-all turn from Harrison Jr, showing himself to be a formidable, rising talent). Outside the home, his relationship hits a tumultuous speed-bump when boy-girl drama of the most serious degree comes into the fold, capturing the juvenile rage of young love in crisis and excruciating nausea of iMessage’s three typing dots (it’s all agonising melodrama through the lens of Gen-Z youth).
Like a tightening noose, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ fraught strings and sorrowful notes (much like their opening ‘Hand Covers Bruise’ of The Social Network) emerge through the cherry-picked tracks and suffocating sound design. This is a film that’s irrepressibly leading to something, ratcheting the dread from scene-to-scene – and when that something hits, it’ll knock the air out of you.
This, of course, is just one half of the story: a truly horrific blow shifts gear into a slower, more meditative piece, with Russell pushed to the forefront of the narrative. It’s less gripping, losing that tangible sense of drama in a sea of internalised agony, while increasingly stylish filmmaking choices (iffy aspect ratio shifts, for example) supersede the brimming emotional cage-match of before.
It’s a bold, double-handed structure from the writer-director, and while it isn’t always entirely effective, the artistic flair of it all – with echoes of American Honey and Moonlight – doesn’t suppress the harsh realism. The themes – including, but not limited to, trauma, abortion, depression and grief, with a smidge of social commentary – remain heartbreakingly resonant (in particular, the late addition of Lucas Hedges as an all-round good egg is a major strength amidst the misery). If the film’s nod towards redemption (as per 1 Corinthians 13:4-8’s ‘Love is patient, love is kind’ passage) doesn’t necessarily land, Shults’ devoted investment in this screen-family speaks volumes about his skills as a filmmaker.