You have to hand it to A24. Since 2013, they have churned out human stories that have artistically moved the soul and captured the heart, and after the success of Krisha and It Comes at Night, Trey Edward Shults’ third feature Waves is up there with as the studios’ best work.
It’s hard not to be moved by Waves – I challenge you if you think it’s not remotely possible. Because, just like its title, it’s an ebb and flow of emotions capturing the gentleness and exuberance of youth, before building into a tumultuous storm of trauma that renders you speechless. It’s a story split into two halves, complementing the sensory overload of its kaleidoscopic visuals, its sound design and an impeccable score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And you only realise you’re witnessing something special when Shults culminates the journey as a soul-stirring, intimate portrait of teenage life that is beautifully conveyed at every dramatic cornerstone. Without question, Waves puts itself in a league of its own as one of the defining films of the year.
If you’ve seen Sam Levinson’s Euphoria, you can probably sense the deep-diving similarities. Both are hard-hitting examples of teenager commentary of pain, struggles, love, forgiveness, hardships and hope. It would be unfair to classify them as a simple ‘coming of age’ drama or some label that’s easily categorised. Just like Euphoria, Waves is much more than that. Within every circling camera movement, its contemporary use of popular music or a score where it’s simply impossible to tell where Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ influence begins and ends, Shults’ powerful directing establishes an honest conversation with its audience about growing up within the social confines of society and the black experience within modern America.
Its emotional leverage begins with the story of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He’s a teenager who has it all; he’s popular in school, part of the wrestling team, has a girlfriend who he adores, can play the piano, and part of a seemingly, loving nucleus of a family with his sister Emily (Taylor Russell), his step-mother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) and his domineering father Ronald (played by Sterling K. Brown) who wants him to achieve the best by pushing him to the limits.
We want to provide our kids with the best tools to cope in life, but it says a lot when a film can intimately empathise yet recognise the mechanisms that can enable a self-destructive path. In a search for perfection, Tyler is popping pills to take the edge off the pain from his wrestling injury, drinking excessively and discovers his girlfriend is pregnant which puts him in a vicious and toxic cycle, unable to cope with the obstacles in front of him. And the repercussions from his actions are aggressively devastating.
That explosive tonal shift between its lush, dreamlike beauty and gasping horror is magnified by a stunning performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr., pouring every unravelling emotion into a role that can never be viewed as one-sided. As a portrayal of male masculinity and its psychological fragility where failure is not an option, it’s equally both haunting yet heartbreaking, helped to fruition by the brilliant Sterling K. Brown.
And it’s here where you begin to appreciate Shults’ artistic directing, carefully building the pressure (with inventive use of Kanye West’s I Am A God) that pushes your emotions to the brink before it violently explodes. He finds its central theme through patience, examining the tragic family breakdown with an understanding eye as they begin to tear themselves apart between blame, guilt and responsibility. It doesn’t dare insult your intelligence, self-aware that the argument is not straightforward but a complex divide that needs healing. Through skill and layered nuanced, Shults demonstrates how even the simplest things can spiral dramatically out of control, and he has the creative audacity to produce its endearing take in a captivating film deserving to be watched on the big screen.
After its intense first half, some may question the need for the second story, which gives the impression of watching two separate films. It’s very easy to be cynical about filmmaking decisions, but you quickly realise how complementary they are. Life is about balance; if it had ended in the way we expected, Waves would have been a simple, morbid affair. There are faint echoes to We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver in dealing with the aftermath of a tragedy, highlighting how the past can ripple into the present with the rarest of cinematic opportunities to confront, to understand and reconcile with the mistakes. Life doesn’t stand still, and it would have been dishonest for the film not to reflect that point. What it achieves in its beautiful characterisation, is that hope that life can re-start again after a dramatic and heartbreaking fall from grace.
And Taylor Russell’s performance brings Waves’ second story into an emotional context. Her relationship with Lucas Hedges’ Luke may feel like a jarring, comic relief exercise, unsure whether you want to laugh after an eventful first half. But just like Kelvin’s performance, because Russell maintains her powerful yet quiet levels of conviction, her star quality (or the film I may add) never falters.
Again, its sensory information begins to make sense when you wrestle with how symmetrical their stories are. Tyler’s panic-stricken downfall (amongst his other troubles) was aided by the paranoia of social media. Emily deletes hers because of the toxic level of offensive comments she received after her brother’s actions. It’s so simplistic, but it’s just one example of the film’s power to draw a substantial and relatable argument into its interwoven narrative.
Waves simply cannot be viewed as a passive, cinematic experience; Its upfront, rollercoaster refusal to entertain that perspective just highlights how uniquely rare it is to watch a film that purposely leaves a profound effect on you, a film with each passing day, you can’t help but think of the influences, its transcendent moments or conversations that strike at its emotional core. It wants to carry you in its heart because it knows it’s unlike any film you’ll see. Would I see it again? In a heartbeat, hence why it deserves my highest recommendation.
WAVES screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. Released in cinemas 17th January 2020.