The third feature film of Trey Edward Shults, Waves is a family drama in the veins of his previous films yet one that also punches down at your emotions without any sort of compromise whatsoever. If anything else best captures what makes the experience of watching Waves every bit as powerful as it is, the title alone would already represent the sort of dynamics between family and friends that you’re seeing onscreen as they take on differing forms from start to finish. There’s no filmmaker working today with the same sort of eye for creating family dramas like Trey Edward Shults, and seeing how he adapts his distinctive style to different forms of storytelling will forever be fascinating to me.
Waves tells the story of a life within an African-American family. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) already leads a life where everything seems so bright for him. His father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and stepmom Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) are fully supportive of him, he is also a part of his high school’s wrestling team, and has a girlfriend named Alexis (Alexa Demie). His sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), is far more reclusive, but after meeting with one of Tyler’s teammates, Luke (Lucas Hedges), she starts to unleash a whole other person altogether as the two of them eventually fall in love. Everything about Waves seems to unfold so simply but it’s only fittingly titled as such, in order to best describe what watching this movie feels like, watching waves as they come crashing down, and receding slowly.
Both halves of Waves come together with the feeling of being two different films, with the first half being focused primarily on Tyler’s near-perfect life as it slowly falls apart and the second being more quiet, focusing on Emily as she tries to reinvent herself for the better. Watching how Trey Edward Shults puts the two of them together would already unveil something else almost entirely as they also form a singular vision of a family at the brink of a collapse. Everything seems set up so perfectly from the quick pacing of the first half, almost like you are feeling a rush of adrenaline through your head, then it only hits you that something is about to go wrong – and the results are shattering.
Trey Edward Shults has crafted what is a perfect family melodrama on the surface, but every layer still reveals something more beautiful underneath. Yet if there’s anything else that makes Shults’s film resonate even more beautifully, it can be felt in the way in which he captures an entire generation – whether it be through his observations of lifestyles or the soundtrack, topped with a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross too. It’s the perfect portrait of the family structure, but also a shattering image of how that power we have over one another impacts the way another sees the world around them. In many ways, this could easily be a family that we already know up close and Trey Edward Shults helps them all feel like we’re up there to witness it.
Waves is a beautiful film, if anything else it also cements Trey Edward Shults as a director worth looking out for. As one can pick up from the structure, it also feels reminiscent of Wong Kar-wai (particularly Chungking Express), but what makes the film all the more wonderful are the ways in which these influences have also informed his directorial style. It’s never afraid to sink into the melodrama, but that’s also what makes watching Waves feel anywhere near as endearing as it is during its best moments. And putting it lightly, it only gets so much better from there onward. There’s beauty to be found in the chaotic nature of Waves but watching how every last bit of it slowly adds together in order to form what we have here is what makes it all so endearing.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via A24.
Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay by Trey Edward Shults
Produced by Kevin Turen, James Wilson, Trey Edward Shults
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sterling K. Brown
Release Date: November 15, 2019
Running Time: 135 minutes