“Stick to what you know” is something we’re told as kids to keep us stuck to the ways we’re used to and to not question authority, keeping us confined. It’s an adage that unfortunately sticks in many of our minds long into adulthood and a curse that keeps the world from progressing at a more rapid pace. It keeps the power in power and the disenfranchised at the bottom. It’s also something that follows many filmmakers in their careers, to great successes and great failures. Sometimes, you get a filmmaker like Wes Craven, so incredibly immersed in the art of making horror films that he rarely ever felt the need to do anything else out of pure love of the genre. Others, without names, find themselves in repetitive ruts, making the same lifeless, identical film over and over with different titles with no love for the work they do. Trey Edward Shults, young filmmaker and A24 darling, subscribes to none of that. Shults’s first film, Krisha, was a micro-budget family drama that covered the toll of addiction on both the addicted and addicted-adjacent. His follow-up, It Comes at Night, was a quiet, brooding horror film about the nature of solitude and uncertainty. Now, his new film, Waves, examines how love and tragedy shake the adolescent experience. You can call Shults a lot of things, but repetitive is not one of them.
Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a hot-shot high school senior with the world at his feet. He’s a star wrestler with a dream girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), and is popular amongst his peers. He’s pushed hard by his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), and finds tenderness from his step-mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), but finds much of his passion stemming from his own drive to be the best. He soon suffers a debilitating shoulder injury that places his identity as a wrestler and teenager in a crisis. Meanwhile, his younger sister and the complete antithesis of her older brother, Emily (Taylor Russell), begins to come into her own, despite her shy, quiet nature. When she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges), a younger wrestling teammate of her brother’s, Emily begins to reveal her own self-worth through sharing her own life struggles with another.
It’s hard to describe Waves without at least one of two things happening: 1. Giving away the entire plot in seeking to put words to the structure of the film, or 2. So vaguely describing the film that one writes it off as a generic teen drama, which is the farthest thing from the truth. Waves is a film that is a lot of things: tender, horrifying, fluttery, tragic. Most of all, Waves is authentic. It might not always feel realistic, but Shults’s vision is genuine and incredibly unique. Similar to that of Sam Levinson’s HBO drama Euphoria, Waves seeks to define the adolescent experience of today by illustrating both the beauties and horrors of being a teenager in an age that directly facilitates the downfall of anyone who lets a moment of vulnerability show through their façade of confidence.
Like Euphoria, the content of Waves isn’t easy to swallow in the absolute slightest, and without much of the crude humor that made much of Euphoria palatable, Waves hits you like a tidal wave (don’t pardon the pun) and drags you down until you can’t breathe, leaving the air taken in upon surfacing feeling purer than ever when it hits your lungs.
Among its impressive cast, there is not a weak link to be found. Harrison, having worked with Shults previously in It Comes at Night, brings a ferocious energy to the character of Tyler which brings forth a sense of angsty anxiety that no other performance this year has achieved. It’s a stomach-churning take on the jock trope seen so heavily in teen films before it. He’s imperfect and does not seek absolution in his character arc, and perhaps that’s what makes his character and Harrison’s performance so endlessly compelling. Russell, on the other hand, couldn’t give a performance more different than Harrison’s. It’s a quietly restrained, lightly flittery and endlessly tragic performance that brings all the sadness of the eyes of a puppy dog with the emotional power that comes with a lion’s roar. Like Tyler, Emily is imperfect, but her evolution as a character as the movie progresses provides her with her own sort of personal absolution that can’t be given to someone by anyone else but themselves. These are two new performers to watch closely in the coming years.
Spotting our two endlessly compelling leads are some truly stunning supporting performances that complement and add their own tragic loveliness to the mix, particularly that of Brown. Brown’s take as a domineering, but well-intentioned, father is one that provides endless room for both hatred and sympathy from audience members. Brown’s take on Ronald makes him perhaps the most complex character in the whole film, one that facilitates both conflict and resolution in a single look. A look so piercing that it could reduce grown men to tears. Brown’s intensity and sensitivity changing on a dime, sometimes multiple times in a single scene, is some of the finest acting work I’ve seen in a film this year, and it definitely puts him near the top of the pack for Best Supporting Actor, at least in my book.
Shults, known for taking risks as a filmmaker on the visual front, approaches Waves in a much different manner than he has in his previous two films. Unlike Krisha and It Comes at Night, Shults inundates Waves with bright, contrasting colors reminiscent of Moonlight in the neon-bathed glow of South Florida. Shults knows when to play his hand and when to fold, using this scheme in a much more organic way than most films this saturated, showing restraint in bringing such a dream-like quality to the film as Waves oftentimes needs to feel like a nightmare instead. His timing on when to implement the visual changes in the film are unorthodox, but somehow they feel correct in how we get to connect with the characters during a specific scene.
Like Krisha and It Comes at Night, though, Shults does utilize the implementation of multiple aspect ratios throughout the film, each depending on the mood or character’s state-of-mind he wants to portray at any given moment. Shults’s employs the best usage of the shifting aspect ratios in his career, and, much like the color grading, his decisions on when to expand and narrow the screen often come at what seem to be strange moments but make perfect sense when the grand scheme of the film. The film starts in a standard 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but shifts to 1.33:1, 2.35:1, and an extra-wide 2.76:1 at any given point, making for what I can only assume to be a projectionist’s worst nightmare. Regardless, it’s a move that transcends gimmickry to wonderful effect.
Beyond its visuals, Waves also features one of the finest soundtracks to any film this year, both diegetically and non-diegetically. With a score from frequent David Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Waves is a synth-heavy modern marvel of music composition. Like their work on films like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, the music doesn’t always sound like the music you would associate with said genre. This isn’t a lively, upbeat teen movie score, but is something far more grating and, often times, more sinister than one might expect. Conversely, the music supervision of the film provides a wonderfully varied look inside how contemporary music shapes adolescence. Nary a scene passes by without the inclusion of some recent song playing in some degree. What’s especially great about the soundtrack is that it doesn’t always seek to match up with the aesthetic presented on screen. This isn’t filled with commercial rap and indie synth-pop, but rather spans a wide gamut of genres that gives nearly every listener something to grasp onto as their own, allowing them to insert their own experiences and identities into the film.
Something that stuck with myself and fellow critics my age during the Film Fest 919 screening, though, was the sharp divide in how the film was received by people of different age groups. The Millennials and Gen-Z viewers almost universally found the film to be moving and immersive in a personal, intimate manner. Meanwhile, older viewers found the film to feel degenerate and an assault on the senses. The secret to Waves? Let it take you in every way it can, rather than trying to find yourself in the film in the literal sense. I can’t say I found ways to directly insert myself into in the film as the scenes of both leads aren’t where I found myself during school, but the universal themes are what whisk you away in its glorious luminescence.
Waves is a beautiful film that transports you to the time when you lost your innocence. It’s not always a smooth ride, nor does it always conjure pleasant memories, but it’s a story of universal love and pain, pain so horrible and love so strong that it could move mountains. Shults reinvents himself once more as a filmmaker and storyteller focused on the interpersonal connections that make us both human and monster simultaneously. He is a filmmaker that puts his livelihood on the line to take risks in how the story of Waves unfolds. This isn’t a film that’s edgy for the sake of edginess, nor is it a film that finds levity for the sake of bringing solace to the audience. Waves is a carefully crafted film that exudes the same amount of love in its construction as the characters on screen get to feel from one another. That’s a quality that, no matter how much visual uniqueness and aural loftiness, you just can’t fake.
In theaters November 15th, 2019.
Final score: 4.5 out of 5