Completing a trilogy of clinically uncomfortable depictions of families coming apart at the seams, Trey Edward Shults' third feature Waves is as uncomfortable as you’d expect, but marks a step forward for the director’s despairing family dramas. While there’s a lot to get though before you reach it, there’s actually hope on the other side of this messy, nightmarish movie. It’s contradictory and amorphous in ways that his past two features were not - to call Waves a musical would probably be overselling it, but it’s certainly musically driven, with a veritable (and probably very expensive) jukebox soundtrack featuring the likes of Tame Impala, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Tyler The Creator, Radiohead, Alabama Shakes, Animal Collective, and no fewer than 4 Frank Ocean tracks. The music only adds to Shults’ typically unsubtle, blunt force approach, acting as messengers of theme and context for every scene (Tyler’s ‘IFHY’ plays shortly after a heated break-up).
As with Krisha and It Comes At Night, Waves is steeped in trauma that feels like it comes from a very personal place - another film with a fuck-up dad who is so laser-focused on the future that he's blind to the disasters developing before his very eyes. But what sets Waves apart from its predecessors is its shift towards the light, towards some kind of forgiveness - in this sense it could be seen as a very Christian film in its teachings of grace and lenience towards human failings, and the freedom that forgiveness can bring. But of course, Shults also questions what and *how much* we can forgive.
In parts it feels like a blood relative to A24’s TV co-produciton Euphoria, with teen angst and pivotal emotional breakthroughs playing out on phone screens, treated with as much seriousness as any ‘adult’ problems. In fact, this angst and frustration is what the entire film pivots around. Its focus is split in two, first following the young Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., who last worked with Shults on It Comes At Night), a high-school wrestling prodigy pushed to the breaking point after receiving a serious bicep injury. The incident totally derails him, Tyler slowly but surely succumbing to the pressure of his father Ronald (Sterling K Brown)’s perfectionism. Tyler’s twitchy, agitated energy is shared by the constantly moving camerawork. It’s a film in which nobody makes good decisions, everyone acts reactively and often hurtfully, with the camera rotating and tilting its way through a disorientating string of anxiety-inducing, claustrophobic scenes.
While it inspires a strong reaction, this first act is all over the place, and practically amorphous in its first hour - with constantly shifting aspect ratios and a hyperactive camera, and feels loosely driven more by themes of toxic masculinity than it is by character. It’s hard to know how to feel about it or what it’s trying to convey as the message is drowned out by sheer, visceral discomfort. That is, until the second act rolls around, and the film finally snaps into focus. This next act starts following a horrifying and misogynist act of violence, shifting its attention to a burgeoning relationship between Tyler’s sister Emily (a marvelous Taylor Russell) and Luke (Lucas Hedges, utterly adorable). The courtship that comes as an antidote to the first half’s bitterness and lack of hope, and the film mellows out into a much more delicate, thoughtful piece.
Though grief hangs over proceedings it’s certainly a lot easier to watch Luke charmingly stammer his way through asking Emily out. As the two get to know each other the film slows down to process grief and work through it, even thinking about the possibility of forgiveness. The film’s more Christian themes come through at this point, with the ideas of grace and letting go of hatred to find inner peace spoken aloud by Ronald as he confesses his own tumultuous feelings, tearfully confessing that he also has no one to talk to.
Waves feels like the final piece in a series of films as self-therapy, Shults’ writing finally reaching the other side of despair at the inner ugliness of humans and the trouble with handling it with honesty. While it’s lead by a strange, lopsided and unwieldy first act, its intentions fully crystallize in its second, and finds some kind of inner peace, finally ending on a more definitive and hopeful note than the despairing, ambiguous conclusions of Krisha and It Comes At Night.