I, like many individuals curious about the phenomenon of emotion, think quite a lot about the nature of love. Why do we love what we love? What does being in love, or loving mean? Does an objective, unified idea of love exist? No matter the science, no matter the anecdotal evidence, love is wholly irrational and intangible. Talk to any two people, they’re going to diverge on what loves is all about, or why they feel the way they do about anything. Logic, and even language, fails to solidify what such a thing truly is.
That intuitive, impenetrable quality or state of being is perhaps the only case I have for adoring Waves. Trey Edward Shults’s third feature, another exercise in domestic drama and familial dynamics, is abstract to the point of potential emptiness. And yet, I cannot shake his sensational, double-pronged odyssey. A lavish, kinetic, wholly engrossing experience, Waves is a film easy to undo in terms of plot or thematic mechanics, but nearly impossible not to feel.
The Williams are an affluent black Florida family. Father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) keep a tight watch on their kids–Ronald, in particular, comes down with tough love to spare. In the first leg of Waves, we follow Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and his opulent, idealized life. His family is quite well-off, he gets along with everyone, he’s works hard and plays hard. We then watch as Tyler descends from good student, star athlete, and hopelessly-in-love boyfriend, to an unhinged and isolated husk of his former self.
In theory, all of Tyler’s could be solved if he just talked about his problems–particularly, a shoulder injury that he hides from his parents, and his girlfriend Alexis’s (Alexa Demie) pregnancy that he vehemently opposes. Not only does Tyler not have the vocabulary to discuss these issues–he is, after all, a teenager–but his dad scares him off from opening up with his hardass demeanor, and Tyler pushes Alexis away by more or less the same means. Tyler drinks, takes pills, and literally and figuratively destroys his life, largely because he doesn’t even know how to confront his demons.
The second half focuses on the Wiliams’s youngest Emily (Taylor Russell). Tyler is largely absent here, as Emily is forced to pick up the pieces of her brother’s actions alone, their family splintered. Soon, Emily strikes up a romantic relationship with the good-natured, dorky Luke (Lucas Hedges). Though Luke initiates the relationship, mostly aware of Emily and her family, Emily supports Luke just as much as he helps her in dealing with their respective trauma. And in Emily’s and Luke’s romance, Waves finds what makes this film so special.
Waves, like Shults’s other films, is largely about repression, the ripple effects of loneliness, and the need for support from others. We see this particularly in the fragile masculinity of both Randall and Kevin. Unlike Krisha or It Comes at Night, Waves is imbued with so much compassion, and so much grace. This is a film that may not sketch characters with enormous depth, but affords them an abundance of understanding–save perhaps for Catherine, who has very little to do, which is an unforgivable waste of Goldsberry. Shults puts his heart and soul into his characters, which pays off beautifully.
Waves likely wouldn’t succeed on melodrama alone. Certainly, the film is one of the most crafted independent features of the year, with a frenetic, aqua-tonal, dizzying camera equal parts James Laxton and Emmanuel Lubezki, and sound design that ebbs and flows as if Shults is cribbing from Lynne Ramsey. The dreaminess of a Wong Kar-wai picture really hits home how much of a Barry Jenkins imitation the film can feel like. But good taste and understanding of why those stylistic choices work pays off. Whether or not Shults is aping someone else’s style, he does so with undeniable potency. At any given moment, Waves is fully alive.
And none of the technical flourishes would work if Shults didn’t get compelling work out his cast. Kevin Harriosn, Jr., having played the only son for Shults in their previous film, has grown into a genuinely arresting presence who turns Tyler into a tragic, cautionary figure who lingers when they’re off-screen. Taylor Russell is quietly heartbreaking, but serves as the real heart of the film. And Sterling K. Brown, a shining star who is incapable of being anything less than great, turns in his best work since The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, is the clear standout, and who gets the most satisfying arc of anyone here. For their limited screentime, Hedges and Goldsberry remind us why they’ve been serious awards players over the last few years. Yeah, the picture looks and feels great, but Waves is nothing without characters who are difficult not to feel for.
For as much as Waves often comes off as Ordinary People by way of Moonlight, the results are genuinely hypnotic–genuinely winning, even. The film embraces this. Shults is bluntly exploring how we are formed by our experiences, or that which resonates strongest emotionally. That’s why the teens at the center of the film have their lives scored by Tame Impala and SZA, why Shults would riff from his peers on the A24 roster, or why one person’s story can’t help affect another’s. If we’re to believe Waves, a person can either fight and drown, or allow themselves to be cleansed. And while justice is very real within Waves, so is mercy.