Let no one say that Trey Edward Shults lacks ambition. That much was apparent after he burst onto the scene with “Krisha” — a microbudget production featuring his own family members that turns a gathering into an anxiety tinged thriller full of atonal noise and flowing camera tricks.
It’s this ambition that’s on display in “Waves,” his latest film that returns to the family drama and anxiety dotted his last two films. In this case, however, it’s more like two films in one: the first dealing with school athlete Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr, from his last film “It Comes At Night”) and his drive to perfection that ends in tragedy, while the second follows his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) as she deals with the fallout.
The first half is the more dramatic of the two. Tyler is pushed hard by his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), who demands nothing less than absolute perfection in all aspects of his life, from training to homework. In other words, he’s a hardass. Otherwise, Tyler’s life seems great, seeing as he has the perfect girlfriend in Alexis (Alexa Demie), and a great path forward.
Pressure builds though, both from his father and from external circumstances. Shults tightens the aspect ratio as this segment goes on, pushing us into a state of anxiety culminating in a horrific incident at a party. Shults’ direction is no less impeccable here, from the opening shot that pans around a car as Tyler and Alexis sing along to Animal Collective’s “Floridada” (an interesting choice but not entirely unrealistic), along with some great editing set to Kanye West’s “I Am A God.”
We pick up with Emily in the aftermath, in what should be a breakout performance for Russell. She ends up in a tentative romance with Lucas Hedges’ Luke, another wrestler on the team who’s dealing with his own problems. From there it blossoms into a romance, and the film begins digging into ideas of love and forgiveness hinted at in the beginning, culminating in an ending sequence that packs a punch.
Perhaps the most noted element of “Waves” has been its soundtrack, and indeed it is a good one, featuring artists like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and not one but two Animal Collective songs — it all must’ve cost a pretty penny. Some may find this to be a bit pandering, especially since it’s also combined with a score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the editing is frequently timed to the songs. Even so, Shults uses music remarkably well, for example using Tame Impala’s “Be Above It” and bringing back that repeated refrain in a moment of panic.
As one would expect, the performances from the family are all extraordinary, and one could easily see them getting four acting nominations at the Oscars. Brown pivots from his hardass nature in the first half to heartbreak in the second, reminding us just how talented he is, while Renee Ellis Goldsberry channels warmth and grief in equal force.
While the central family is black (and it should be noted that the majority of creatives behind this project are white), the fact that the story doesn’t explicitly deal with race actually works in its favor, given how disastrous it could turn out. Shults also mirrors some shots from the first half in the second in a way that lends itself to the idea of Emily learning to open up the different paths a family member could take. It’s showy, yes, but never in a way that feels out of control.
The story admittedly walks a bit of a tightrope with its bifurcated nature, the two elements seeming to clash as it transitions into the furtive romance of the latter half. For some, the twisty nature of the plot may be a turnoff, and the fact that it doesn’t quite resolve the ends of the first story is perhaps a weakness. By the end though, as a montage set to Radiohead’s “True Love Waits” rolls on, the emotional force of Shults’ approach becomes too powerful to ignore.
As with all ambitious projects, “Waves” is flawed. This is a film in which you buy into what it wants to say and how it says it or you turn off entirely. For those willing to surrender themselves to it, you’ll be rewarded with some of the finest performances of the year and some thought-provoking material on forgiveness.