‘Waves’ Ebbs and Flows

Precocious Missteps and Contrived Narrative Choices Can’t Hide the Director’s Talent

A tsunami of virtuoso filmmaking breaks against the shoals of schematic storytelling in Waves, Trey Edward Shults’ fitfully touching portrait of a domestic tragedy. It’s a rhapsodic diptych of South Floridian life that explores the nuclear meltdown of a nuclear family, strongest on the heavenly-to-harrowing rhythms of teenage emotions and weakest on the anemic adult perspective. If anything, its shortcomings loom larger because Waves conjoins these false emotional notes to such blissful moments. The ambition is admirable, the execution less so. But when the light hits at the right angle, this flawed diamond sparkles with a blinding brilliance.

WAVES ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Written by: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown
Running time: 135 min


“There are no second chances. There are no second acts,” barks a voice of authority early on in the film, during an exhilarating montage of high school life for hotshot senior Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He’s a star wrestler with a foxy cheerleader girlfriend named Alexis (Alexa Demie) whom he lists in his smartphone contacts as “Goddess.” Everything is breaking his way. Carpe Diem, one of the classroom walls advertises. Seize the day, live your best self, make all the right moves. Because there is no other option.

“We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” rumbles his intense father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). As the owner of a construction business and the patriarch of an upper-middle-class African-American clan, Ronald bores down heavily on Tyler, lifting weights in tandem with him, barking orders about his homework, watching his wrestling matches with brooding eyes. Tyler outshines his wallflower sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who is quietly, attentively present in their household but otherwise barely talks. Ronald’s wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) sasses gently. Male dominance is the norm, as long as nothing goes wrong.

Except a few things start to go wrong. Tyler’s doctor warns of a “Level 5 SLAP tear,” a shoulder injury that threatens to derail his all-star athletic trajectory. He shrugs it off and manages the pain by stealing oxycodone from his dad’s medicine cabinet. Alexis keeps warning that her period is late, then eventually confides that she’s pregnant. Even worse, she doesn’t know if she actually wants that abortion. More pressure leads Tyler to more drinking, anger, anxiety, and fear. And when that kind of pressure builds, an explosion is inevitable.

‘Waves’, before the aspect-ratio drop, or maybe after, or during. 

That’s when Waves, in an audacious narrative pivot, suddenly focuses on Emily. And as her family processes the trauma, she finds herself spreading unlikely wings and taking flight. Her own self-discovery becomes a vital path to redemption, not only for her brother but for everyone she loves.

As with any movie, even ones with hokey pitches, success is in the execution. Flashy technique only works if the characters are believable and their journeys are compelling. And, in fits and starts, these are. Shults leans into a vibrant soundtrack, including hypnotic original material by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, that makes Tyler’s downward spiral virtually operatic. And the conflict, when done right, achieves a sort of grandeur. One electric scene involving a text exchange between Tyler and Alexis is absolutely devastating.

But been-there-done-that plot points executed with a lack of finesse make Waves feel half-baked and, at its worst, contrived. This is the kind of movie where someone’s alcoholic deadbeat dad is dying of cancer. Where an enraged teenager yells “You’re not my real mother!” Where a fence-mending parent says to an estranged child, “I don’t even know what’s going on with you.” And where a self-effacing jock says, “I fucking love manatees.” That last line, by the way, comes from Lucas Hedges, who is such a fine actor that he actually finds a way to make that dopey zinger not only endearing but downright romantic.

And Shults is the kind of expressionistic director who signals that the walls are closing in on his characters by literally narrowing the aspect ratio. Because innovative? Squeezing the 16×9 image to a letterboxed widescreen or a pillarboxed square is a schtick he’s done before, and it’s never not felt like a gimmick. Here he formalizes it even more, starting full-screen, then going scope, then going to a square, then back to scope until returning to full-screen. Symmetry, get it? Like a wave. Ohhh. Got it.

That said, no other release this year looks like Waves. Some of the camerawork, especially a few choice immersive swivels, are downright giddy. This may also be the first movie that actually includes the film’s colorist in the opening credits. The shout-out is well-deserved, from Alexis’ day-glo fingernails in a bath of blue ocean light to the abstracted arcs of a speeding police car’s siren to the blood-red wash of a low-rent liquor store.

Shults is a tremendously talented filmmaker taking audacious narrative and stylistic risks. He doesn’t always avoid some shallow dramatic sketching, but these shortcomings feel like precocious missteps that will ebb over time. Let’s hope his undeniable skills continue to flow.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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