Having helped usher in the current wave of A24 horror films with 2017’s It Comes At Night, director Trey Edward Shults has returned with Waves. It’s a fresh, vibrant film that touches upon notions of masculinity and fatherhood, among other things, while ultimately emerging as a deeply felt tale of love and forgiveness. When its 2+ hour runtime comes to an end, you let out the breath you didn’t know you were holding and a feeling of fulfillment washes over you. Simply put: it’s tremendous.
The story follows Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a black teenager who’s beginning to feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. He’s facing challenges from all angles — from a sports injury that looms over his place on the wrestling team, to his constantly on the rocks relationship, to his well-meaning, if overbearing father (Sterling K. Brown) putting undue pressure on him. The father’s relationship with his son, and later with daughter Emily (Taylor Russell), is where Waves walks the trickiest tightrope and in doing so, gets its richest drama. He has every reason to push his son, as he states, telling him that black men don’t get to be mediocre in America. And while he’s not wrong, it’s his failure to check in with Tyler’s well-being that causes significant harm, something he later reflects upon in a moment of introspection.
Tyler’s injury grows increasingly worse as he continues to push himself, sending him down a dark path of painkillers and booze. Emily finds him vomiting and unable to stand in the bathroom one night, during which we see how their relationship runs far deeper than their prior bickering suggested. Where he can’t be vulnerable around his father, his sister provides a support system he doesn’t have elsewhere, even if he doesn’t know how to lean on her. This isn’t entirely out of his control though, as he’s prone to blowing up at girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) and ghosting her for days at a time. He tells her it’ll be better this time, but when the possibility of her being pregnant arises, the couple grows further apart than ever.
We’ve all had those moments, especially as teenagers, where it feels as though everything is crumbling around you, where you can’t focus on one aspect of life due to the crushing weight of all that’s occupying your mind. Shults, who also serves as co-editor, captures these moments in Tyler’s life by breaking from the long, swirling takes that occupy much of the film and employing rapid-fire cuts which, along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross‘ pounding score, create a horribly overwhelming feeling. This culminates in a pulse-raising sequence of a furious text exchange between Tyler and Alexis, wherein the director wrings cinematic tension from the most mundane of acts.
As things come to a head between these two, A24 darling Lucas Hedges enters the picture as the awkwardly charming Luke, who strikes up an unlikely relationship with Emily. It’s here that Waves truly evolves into something special, going beyond a story that examines toxic masculinity into one that contrasts these vastly different pairings and, for reasons I won’t spoil here, digs into the enduring nature of love, both familial and romantic. The film’s third act goes to a remarkable and unexpected place of forgiveness, one that reminds us of what it takes to heal and to recover from tragedy.
Shults’ craft is all over this movie — from the aforementioned twirling camera movements emphasizing the dreamy quality of those long car rides young lovers take, where nothing exists but them and the open road, to the changing aspect ratio that closes in on one character in a moment of panic and opens up as another reaches a moment of clarity. His dreamlike aesthetic is also seen in the locations he uses with one of the finest being a heartfelt reconciliation set on a withering bench surrounded by waves. It’s a seemingly impossible setting that hangs in the memory long after the credits roll. His use of music, in addition to Reznor and Ross’ stellar score, is also fantastic at putting us in these characters heads, be it Kanye West’s frantic “I Am a God” for Tyler, or Animal Collective and a pitch-perfect use of Radiohead’s “True Love Waits” for Emily and Luke.
Waves is an astonishing piece of work, one that tackles every one of its ideas with grace, heart, and compassion. It’s bolstered by wonderful performances from Harrison Jr., Hedges, Brown, and particularly Russell as Emily, who emerges as the beating heart of the film. The film elegantly shifts perspective, taking us on an expansive journey and allowing us to feel warmth, terror, and pain, and eventually, an uplifting note of relief.