In Trey Edward Shults’ Waves, an emotionally explosive, formally exhilarating drama about the travails of a South Florida family, the camera swivels, soars and occasionally comes to a meaningful rest. It begins with a snapshot of life on the edge, a dizzying 360-degree shot from the center of an SUV speeding down the freeway, capturing the liberating and establishing the visceral intensity of what’s to come. The camera sometimes stalks its characters from behind, as though trying to keep up; sometimes it leans in close, as if to pull them into a tender embrace. It’s intensely physical filmmaking, drenched in the Florida sunshine and magnetized by the beauty of the actors’ faces and bodies — it’s also deeply rooted in its characters’ consciousness, alert to the feelings of dread, shame, rage and despair that threaten to bring these fast-moving lives to a standstill. Shults’ tense third feature assembles into an audacious saga out of its 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. The movie’s sharp trick is the way it begins as one story and branches out in unexpected directions. Though the camera may move fast, no one moves faster than Tyler Williams (a brilliant Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a teenage wrestler with bleached-blonde hair and a lust for life that hits you like — well, a wave. He dominates the first half of this two-part drama, and the camera seems to feed on his boundless energy.
As spoken of before, the film’s opening 360-degree shot centers on Tyler and his cheerleader girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), as they drive along the oceanfront, sticking their limbs out windows and dancing along to Animal Collective and Tame Impala. It traces the same restlessly circular motion as Tyler jogs around at wrestling practice and then crashes to the floor as he takes down an opponent. But things slow down when Tyler returns to his family’s suburban home, quickly kissing his stepmother, Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and barely registering the existence of his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). A palpable note of tension creeps in when he mumbles a greeting to his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), a gruff authoritarian who treats every exchange as an opportunity for Tyler’s improvement. That’s true whether they’re having an argument or pumping iron in their home gym. Ronald tries hard to convince his son, or maybe just himself, that all this toughness is for Tyler’s own good.
“We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” Ronald lectures his son. “You gotta work ten times as hard just to get anywhere.” It’s an honest if uninspired line in a movie that’s less inventive verbally than it is visually. It’s also one of the few moments when race is explicitly acknowledged. (Another comes later, when a stranger hurls a racial slur at Tyler.) It’s also advice that Tyler absorbs and powers ahead with, 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 rocky relationship problems. All these developments alone may not seem all that fresh, but Waves assembles them in an operatic fashion over the course of a mesmerizing first act that takes all its cues from its character’s anxious subjectivity, and the mounting sense that Tyler’s world is on the verge of collapse. And when it does, 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, clearly conveying the literal collapse of Tyler’s life (the movie will change the aspect ratio four more times throughout). 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.
The second half of Waves shifts to the aftermath of Tyler’s meltdown, and in some ways, is a principled rebuke of the first. Tyler’s sister, Emily, whom we had mostly glimpsed in fragments, suddenly emerges as the protagonist. The camera, so wildly kinetic in Tyler’s presence, floats and drifts in the presence of his sister’s quieter, more tentative spirit. Emily is perceptive, smart and used to being overlooked; at times she seems to be actively dodging the camera’s attention. But she can’t escape its gaze, much less that of a classmate, Luke (Lucas Hedges), who is drawn to her loveliness and moved by her gentle grace. Their awkward initial flirtation quickly blooms into a real relationship, animated by Hedges’ puppyish sweetness and Russell’s soulful honesty (with that honesty Russell nearly steals the movie). Their bond is strengthened, as well, by a mutual understanding of family pain: Luke is dealing with an estranged deathly ill father, while Emily registers the toll of her parents’ failing marriage and her brother’s self-destructive impulses. Overall, Emily’s story has a much gentler quality compared to the first passage, and her developing relationship with Luke lacks the intrigue that dominates Tyler’s story, and the film does stumble a bit making the transition between parts. 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.
Shults throughout Waves deals in bold aesthetic gestures and equally bold, empathetic emotions. His work emerges with the raw, rugged immediacy of John Cassavetes and the dreamy poetry of Terrence Malick (who Shults worked with on multiple projects early in his young career), and he shares with both filmmakers an admirable gift for constructing drama from scraps of reality, for teasing out spasms of emotion from the stuff of everyday experience. Also much like his two previous features, Krisha and It Comes at Night, Waves deals heavily with the fragility of the American family. But Waves strikes me as perhaps his wildest, most undisciplined dive into that subject, but also his grandest and most affecting. The brash showmanship of his technique can occasionally overpower the subtler emotional demands of his material, but it also touches deep valleys of feeling that a more cautious approach might not have managed. More than anything, this is the work of a filmmaker who is never content merely to record action like a passive observer. Shults and his cinematographer Drew Daniels, together build a vibrant cinematic language that insists on thinking with the camera.
Though Shults has made a despairing movie, it’s also one that’s not entirely disheartening. Its very title is seemingly an expression of optimism, a suggestion that if happiness is recurrent, maybe grief is too. Superficially, the title, Waves, refers to the tides we hear pounding the coast in the background of many scenes. But Waves, I feel might also describe the very structure of the movie itself: not just the two-part structure but also the way each scene seems to sway between dread and ecstasy, tension and release. Waves, when its production was initially announced, was mislabeled as a musical, but there is a pretty definite musicality to its structure: with the soundtrack careening from Kendrick Lamar to Kanye West to Radiohead (along with a propulsive score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), the movie glides along as if it exists within the same abstract plane as the melodies (and deeply detailed sound design) themselves. These cues 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. In the end, Waves is an onslaught of emotions, ranging from a tender ripple to a tsunami of anxiety, each taking a deep plunge into complex new boundaries of the human experience with a vibrant, bracing openness.