Written & Directed by Trey Edward Shults
From the dizzying opening to the serene closing, Waves is an emotional rollercoaster that exists in two clear halves. Director Trey Edward Shults has explained that he wanted the first section to feel like a building anxiety attack and that the second piece would be a reassuring hug that things will get better. The result is one of the most beautiful and human films of 2019. It’s clear Shults has drawn inspiration from sources as varied as Moonlight, Punch-Drunk Love, and Chungking Express, managing to paint his dynamic style of filmmaking across the screen.
Our protagonists are Tyler and Emily, siblings living in Broward County, Florida. Emily exists in the background of her family, while Tyler is the superstar. He’s a champion high school wrestler pushed continuously by his domineering father, Ronald, and doted over by his mother, Cath. Tyler’s shoulder has been causing him pain, and he eventually learns it’s worse than he realizes. However, his father has insisted that, if Tyler stays on the path he demands, then Tyler will be a success. As personal challenges pile up and Tyler seeks to self-medicate, it becomes clear he hasn’t been prepared to tackle these obstacles. The film makes a drastic shift in the middle, and we move our attention to Emily. And it is this second half where the picture really becomes something phenomenal and moving.
I’ve read criticisms that Waves is melodramatic to a fault, but I argue that the scenario presented here is not so far out of reality to be absurd. The things that happen to Tyler and his erratic responses feel very organic for a teenager coming of age. It is made worse by Ronald’s constant course corrections and critiques. Tyler impressively wins a wrestling match, and then we cut to Ronald sparring with his son in the garage, pointing out how he could have won faster. Nothing is good enough for his father, and this is because he understands the pressure on black men to not just be good but a hundred times better than their white peers. This doesn’t mean Ronald does the right thing, he ends up becoming the architect of much of his family’s misery.
Shults once again showcases his skill at being a master of emotional horror. The first 90 minutes of Waves feel like the same building momentum of his first feature, Krisha, both told from the perspective of someone caught up in the undertow of fractured relationships and drugs. The camera is moving at a frenzied pace from as soon as we first glimpse Tyler, tearing through a day in his life before the credits stop rolling. Tyler never seems to stop going, pushed on by his father. Emily seems insignificant in this story, mostly holed up in her room, earbuds on. It’s not until a significant moment at a house party that we see the narrative focus on her a bit more, and then suddenly, she is our main character.
The acting in Waves is superb, everyone does a magnificent job. But, Taylor Russell, as Emily is the breakthrough here. The second portion of the movie suddenly slows down, becomes contemplative. The camera still moves, but now it floats and flows through scenes, no longer rushing from moment to moment. Emily is still removed from her family but establishes a connection, her first serious relationship. Her boyfriend, Luke (Lucas Hedges) is awkward and charming, you find yourself rooting for this couple, their chemistry is strong but allowed to develop over time. Shults can convey that sense of being in love, filled with energy & excitement, the feeling you have a beautiful secret that makes you smile to yourself in the middle of the day.
Russell has a dual-task, showcasing this young love while mourning the aftermath of what happens with Tyler. Her background status becomes a vital piece of the story, her parents so caught up in her brother they forgot she was there. Ronald especially comes to realize that he has taken Emily for granted and eventually allows himself to become vulnerable to her. In many ways, her father becomes like a broken child, and Emily is there to comfort him. But she also blames herself for what happens, knowing that she could have done something, that she knew things were not good with Tyler. Her journey is one of forgiving herself and learning to understand how to begin moving past those psychic wounds.
Waves is not a film for everyone, and I can completely understand if a viewer was turned by the tone and pacing. For me, though, it was a perfect match. I love ambitious filmmaking, and few movies this year have this level of ambition. Waves has been compared to P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia because of its scope and thematic weight, and that is an apt comparison. I cried multiple times throughout the picture, and I would be surprised if someone managed to not shed some tears watching this stunning film.