Bursting onto the screen in a flurry of swirling camera moves and fast-paced cuts, Waves (2019) quickly introduces us to the riotous world of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an ambitious high school athlete who goes about his busy day of training, studying, and spending time with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie) and family. It’s a joyous opening, writer-director Trey Edward Shults instantly pulling us into the story and placing us right alongside Tyler, making us feel the very vibrations of the thumping, exciting music that accompanies these carefree moments. Yet there’s something overwhelming about all of this too, the breathtaking pace and ceaseless movements often disorientating – a feeling that Tyler can relate to as the pressure of his chaotic lifestyle begins to weigh on him. It’s inevitable that things can’t last. However, when cracks do start to appear, Tyler finds that the consequences not only threaten his once perfect future, but that they also send ripples throughout the rest of his family in unexpected, devastating ways.
Those familiar with Shults’ first feature, Krisha (2015), will recognise the similarities between that and Waves almost immediately (least of all because of the brief cameo from Krisha Fairchild herself in those opening scenes). A beautifully constructed drama steeped in realism, Krisha is also about a family unit coming apart at the seams, unspoken issues between them bubbling away under the surface, before they’re suddenly aired over the Thanksgiving turkey. Yet with Waves, Shults has taken a step in other directions as well, his ambitious narrative mixing together ideas exploring identity, ambition and masculinity, as well as that ever-present theme of family. More specifically, Waves poignantly portrays the relationship between Tyler and his father (Sterling K. Brown) – a kind yet stern man who pushes Tyler at every turn, whether it’s when they’re training together, or when he’s simply monitoring his schoolwork. But keeping his Dad happy seems to be an impossible task, Tyler finding himself studying late into the night and having to pop pills just so he can stick to that busy schedule. And soon, Tyler’s keeping secrets and making all the wrong choices, fighting to stay on top of that very high pedestal his Dad has placed him on.
With a tragic, sweeping story like that, you can almost imagine the Hollywood version – all bombastic scenes filled with screaming, weeping and fists through walls. While Waves does have these big moments (and then some), Shults executes his narrative in subtler, more poignant ways, eschewing the usual dramatic conventions to get to the very heart of his characters and their experiences. He takes great care to focus on the realism within every frame, preferring to show us the smaller, family moments that he knows will resonate with all of us. Tyler and his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) quietly hugging late one night. Their Dad frantically driving around. Emily listening to her parents argue behind a door. Shults gives these scenes as much importance as the larger story at play, allowing us to see ourselves in the family and giving this an emotional depth that is rarely felt onscreen. It’s a refreshing approach, Shults’ beautiful writing and characterisation perfectly complemented by the stunning performances he coaxes from his cast, in particular Harrison Jr. who flawlessly portrays Tyler’s agonising fall from grace. That he keeps Tyler wholly relatable, despite the dubious choices he makes, is an amazing achievement, especially when his actions have dire consequences further down the line.
Cinematographer Drew Daniels matches Shults’ engaging tale with a mesmerising style, each scene shot in a way that injects Waves with a pulsing, thrilling energy. Employing different aspect ratio sizes, the film constantly switches from wider, full-screen shots to a 4:3 ratio or cramped letterbox, this technique reflecting the mounting pressure on Tyler and his crumbling mental state, the walls almost literally closing in on him. In the same way, that kinetic camera is often dictated by what’s happening in the narrative, those exhilarating moves becoming increasingly frantic as things start to fall apart. That we’re placed directly alongside Tyler during these moments makes them particularly potent, 360 degree shots and sweeping long takes putting us right amongst the action, even when we don’t want to be. These astonishing visuals are made more effective by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ incredible score, as well as tracks from the likes of Frank Ocean, Animal Collective and Kendrick Lamar, all of which are perfectly executed to give scenes greater impact. From the happier strains of the opening sequence, to the later songs that almost act like a thumping heartbeat as Tyler cracks under pressure, the music ramps up the tension throughout, so much so that you’re often on the edge of your seat without even realising it.
It’s a shame then that the latter part of Shults’ film suffers a little, the story losing momentum as he takes it in a different, albeit unexpected, direction. While that compelling visual style still remains (aspect ratio changes and all), the breathless pacing that makes the first part so invigorating disappears – something that we do miss as it slowly heads towards its finale. But even with this change of tempo, Waves remains a fascinating film, Shults’ narrative becoming all the more poignant as he explores the long-term effects that Tyler’s actions have on the whole family. It is also Taylor Russell’s striking performance in this second half that makes it work so well, her wonderfully emotional portrayal keeping the plot engaging and grounded, preventing it from slipping into conventional drama territory when further disasters appear on the horizon. Yet it is her scenes opposite Sterling K. Brown that are the most touching, their astounding performances adding a real authenticity to these later moments. As Shults draws the film to a close, it’s their relationship that we connect with the most, Shults using them to turn a sentimental ending into a somewhat hopeful one – a conclusion that brings his story full circle, and which leaves us wondering what happens to the family after the film’s final, tender frames.
After his previous two films, Shults has once again proved himself to be a writer-director capable of bringing a captivating tale to the screen in all its realistic, emotional glory. That you can never guess where Waves is heading is such an incredible accomplishment, Shults’ exquisite script pulling together multiple ideas and framing them in such a bold and refreshing way that we’re immediately entranced. His direction is subtle enough to coax natural performances from his excellent ensemble cast, yet confident enough to execute those hypnotic visuals and pulsing score perfectly throughout, the frantic pacing this creates barely letting us take a moments breath. As such, Waves often makes for a heartbreaking watch, but is the kind of film you’ll want to revisit again as soon as you possibly can.
(Originally posted on The Digital Fix).