Being a teenager is always hard, no matter the point in time or place one is growing up in. However, rarely does art try and delve into how dark those adolescent years can be, especially in an American environment where perfection is the expectation. It’s gone to a point of having each kid be crafted as if to be sold off to colleges and for a parents’ own pride and honor. This dark side has been explored unabashedly in HBO’s brilliant series Euphoria (2019-) and now is being delved into by indie darling director Trey Edward Shults in Waves (2019).
Waves is a film that follows a black family in modern day Miami, and more closely the two high school kids. The first sibling is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) a wrestling team star, who is pressed by his father (Sterling K. Brown) at being as perfect as he can be in every area. Thus after every wrestling meet, there are no praises, but more corrections; no flaw is allowed when attending church, working at a job, being with one’s girlfriend, or even doing one’s homework. Tyler seems to be meeting the expectations set on him, but it is all a house of cards that soon comes tumbling down, the fall of which spirals Tyler into despair. The second sibling we follow is Emily (Taylor Russell), her narrative is much quieter, just like her, and we see how her life contrasts with Tyler’s loud one and how she suffers from the ripples of Tyler’s actions.
Edward Shults has been crafting a very distinct voice in his films; it is one of meticulous attention to detail and a great knowledge of his craft. His are films that make one notice the difference between those that have studied film, and other directors more focused on just plot. His previous film, the horror It Comes At Night (2017), was expertly crafted in how it built dread and suspense, and yet it was greatly criticized for not capitalizing on it and having a satisfying ending to his story. The same cannot be said for Waves, which slowly starts descending into the chaos that Tyler’s life is becoming to the point that viewers can feel their own heart rate speeding up. Edward Shults is able to lend another unique and beautiful cinematography to his new film, with a camera that seems to capture the 360 degree surroundings of each scene as it spins around in a constant pan. His use of lights, sound, and a fabulous soundtrack (with a Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score) are perfectly able to encapsulate the proper atmosphere for each situation. The result is that these techniques bring an immersion that washes over viewers in an unnoticed yet totally enveloping way.
The narrative seems incredibly split between the two siblings. The first half leads one to think that the entire film will be about Tyler, but as his story climaxes we abruptly shift to Emily’s point of view, which carries the rest of the film. The two halves are completely different in their composition, reflecting the personalities of their respective protagonists. This sudden change is a powerful commentary in how violently life can suddenly twist, leading one into a completely different tone and pace than accustomed to. While this is a powerful commentary on the instability of life, it does startle the audience out of the world that they had been so invested in. The second half is able to allure us once again, but it takes its time. Once one is sold into this new story, however, one notices that such a radical change in style indicates to an almost entirely different film, almost as if the narrative had been structured as an anthology series. But as the finale inevitably urges the two stories together, Edward Shults begins to lose his grip on the balance of the story. The final third of the film seems to deviate too much from the central story, to the point that another messy transition is forced on viewers. This causes the ending to drag and feel much longer than it should have, so that one is sadly hoping for the credits to roll instead of having them coming naturally.
The narrative’s intensity requires a lot from its actors, but Edward Shults is able to bring together an array of rising young talent so that one is left with their mouth agape at their abilities. Kelvin Harrison Jr. was already known to Edward Shults, after collaborating with him in It Comes At Night, but he brings about a much more tortured and deep view of a young man cracking under pressure in Waves. Sterling K. Brown as his father, channels a very different perfectionist than his lovable dad in This is Us (2016-), to the point of being menacing with a quiet, pent-up energy. Even the actors in smaller roles such as Alexa Demie or Lucas Hedges as love interests are spectacular. However, the break-out talent of this film is Taylor Russell. The young actress is able to bring about the blend of maturity and innocence to her Emily that is a perfect representation of the bridged moment in adolescence. Her capacity to bring about such a gentle and quiet performance, and yet populate it with an incredible depth of emotion and history, is absolutely breathtaking to watch. She is one to watch out for in the future.
In the end, Waves is a breathtaking and unfiltered view at teenage life in the Western world (more specifically the United States), with no ugly parts painted over. The film is split into two distinct halves that while related, are not as smooth in transitioning to one another as one might like; and Shults fails to nail an impactful finale, instead fizzling off. The stellar performances and immersive capabilities of Waves trump the greater misgivings, to make this a truly cinematic experience worth indulging in.