At TIFF last year, everyone was losing their mind over Waves, and it was one of the most difficult tickets to procure at the festival. Half the people I spoke to were enthralled by it but unwilling to talk about it lest spoiling it. The other half thought the reaction was overblown—that there was a kernel of an impactful story in Waves, but that it was too long, too enamored with itself. Months removed from that hype, now that Waves is readily available for rental online and I’ve seen it myself, I am ready to loudly and proudly … not take a side. Both sides are sort of right! And both sides are sort of wrong!
Trey Edward Shults’s third directorial effort after the critically adored Krisha and the more muted horror It Comes at Night, Waves is undoubtedly charmed by its own construction—by its split perspectives, by its shifting aspect ratio, by the soundtrack that saturates nearly every scene. Animal Collective, Tame Impala, a lot of Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky, Dinah Washington, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Amy Winehouse, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler, the Creator, Kid Cudi—that’s not even everyone listed on A24’s annotated playlist! Given all that, I can somewhat understand a dismissal of Waves, a feeling that Shults was more interested in the component parts of the film rather than a cohesive whole.
But I also think that to toss out the film summarily ignores the strong performances here from the core ensemble of Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, and Renée Elise Goldsberry, playing an upper-middle-class black family rocked by the rippling effects of one lie, then another, then one act of violence, then another. Waves traces, believably I think, how these actions compound upon themselves—how once a certain turning point is reached, the action barrels forward too quickly for any of us to stop it. Think of Chidi’s trolley problem in The Good Place, and the philosophical query inherent within it: What is the right thing to do in a situation where no outcome is what you want? When someone will be hurt either way? What kind of guilt does that internalize? What kind of resentment, or regret?
Waves focuses on the Williams family, living an idyllic, wealthy life in Florida. Father Ronald (Brown) is domineering but charming; mother Catherine (Goldsberry) is the primary breadwinner, the supportive and curious parent; son Tyler (Harrison) is a star on the wrestling team, a popular kid, the one used to breaking the rules and getting away with it; and Emily (Russell) is the younger, quieter sister, not so well-known, an observer. In the high school they both attend, Tyler seems to reign supreme alongside his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), the “Goddess” to his “Papi,” and they party together, skip school together. He sends her a shirtless flexing photo every day. They’re having sex. They have all the confident wildness and reckless ambition of well-off young people, until it all catches up with them.
The recurring shoulder injury Tyler’s been dealing with for months, the one his father has encouraged him to ignore, the one that Tyler has been addressing by lifting more weights, by working out harder, by bullying younger members of the wrestling team? It’s far more serious than Tyler anticipated. And Alexis being late with her period? It’s because she’s pregnant. Suddenly the meticulously crafted plans that Tyler assumed would be his steps forward into adult life are collapsing around him, and the decisions he makes in response to those—the sprawling effects of his panic, his selfishness, and his desperation—shape the Williams family for years to come. By the time the film, midway through, changes perspective to Emily, we get a comprehensive look at a family in freefall, and at the relationships that can be crafted out of love and out of crisis.
So much of the first half of Waves feels almost like a cautionary tale, and I’ll admit to you that Tyler’s story felt initially cliched—“star athlete loses his way” is not a particularly novel idea in movies about teenagers. But Harrison sells it, not only thanks to his confident physicality but also his believable ignorance (when Alexis tells him she’s late, he asks “for what?”) and his unexpected levels of anger—at the father who pushes him and at the mother who coddles him. And Harrison and Russell are achingly good together, sharing one particular scene and one moment of sibling closeness that I kept thinking about when the second half of the film focuses more on Emily. Is there perhaps too much time given to Lucas Hedges’s Luke, the boy Tyler used to push around on wrestling team and the one who eventually asks Emily out on a date? Perhaps—Emily’s storyline becomes tied up in his in the way adolescent romances so often do. But if Shults is sending a message about forgiveness, and about the wild leap of faith we take when we decide we’re going to let someone back into our lives, then Emily’s and Luke’s stories work in tandem as they attempt to make peace with the people who have hurt them.
There’s strength in that, and more than anything else, that’s what I admired about Waves: this idea that we are as capable as making mistakes as we are of making amends, that we are as capable of love as we are of hate. More than the omnipresent soundtrack, more than Luke’s much-memed love of manatees (“They’re like if a cow and an elephant had a baby in the water!”), more than the gauzily neon depiction of Florida from cinematographer Drew Daniels, that is the lingering impact of Waves. The crashing of a wave and its recession, the ebb and flow of the tide—there has to be a balance to all that effort, to all that complementary creation and destruction, and that’s the peace Waves is trying to find.
Waves was released by A24 last year in limited release around the U.S. It is available for rental on YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon.
Image sources (in order of posting): A24, A24, A24, A24