“The kind of tremendous film-making in which you let out a breath that you didn’t know you were holding onto when the credits roll.”
Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night, Krisha) has made his name by exploring complicated family dynamics in the past, but none have been so powerful as his latest work, Waves. The film is much more than the “teen drama” it may be advertised as, and that label does a major disservice to the emotional depths this 135-minute epic goes to.
Initially centred on Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an 18-year-old star high school athlete who has a wealth of opportunities ahead of him, we see him struggle to cope as his problems begin to take a tighter hold. His father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), is well-meaning but overbearing, keeping him on a strict training regime to ensure he stays on track for a college scholarship. The matriarch of the family, Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), owns the construction business which supports their middle-class lifestyle. His sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), takes centre-stage herself later, but remains in the film’s peripherals initially.
From the first shot, Shults sets the precedent that this film will be the most stylised of his yet. The camera spins inside an SUV as Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) speed down a highway with music blaring. They hang their heads out the window as they sing-along and Tyler asks “do you trust me baby?” as he lifts both hands off the wheel. This hyper-stylised cinematography, as well as the film’s use of hip-hop and indie artists (Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Animal Collective, to name a few) for its soundtrack, bears the possibility that anyone who doesn’t connect with these things will check out very early on.
Shults never once lets up on his style, however, with the aspect ratio switching numerous times throughout. There’s a trust in his audience that you’ll allow this sprawling narrative to play out through its harshest points, so that you’ll reach the optimism at its end. His influences, while sometimes obvious, never feel like they’re being meekly imitated. The camera bears resemblance to Emmanuel Lubezki’s work with both Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuaron at times, and comparisons to Moonlight are bound to be made due to the film’s South Florida setting and plot structure. Despite these similarities, Waves manages to stand on its own as an immense piece of filmmaking.
Midway through the film, when Tyler’s character is pushed aside to make way for his sister Emily’s story, the major questions are asked. The William’s family are at this point filled with anger and grief. Shults allows these characters to grieve in their own way, never condemning any one of them if they decide to shut off from the world or if they try to power through. Emily is tasked with carrying her own emotional weight through her late teens into maturity, and it’s Taylor Russell’s performance that may be the standout amongst a cast that give their absolute all.
This is the kind of tremendous filmmaking in which you let out a breath that you didn’t know you were holding onto when the credits roll. Shults has honed his craft better than most in his brief career already, and Waves is the peak of his incredible three film stint.
Dir: Trey Edward Shults
Prod: Trey Edward Shults, Kevin Turen, James Wilson
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Alexa Demie, Renee Elise Goldsberry
Release Date: January 17 2020 (UK)