Undoubtedly his most bold and ambitious film to date. Director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) new film Waves, oozes creativity and emotion in equal measure. While embracing its audience in a kaleidoscope of colour, sound and movement. Ensuring each person watching feels a part of the action on screen. In a sweeping family drama that not only creates moments of devastating emotion, but also manages to sing with scenes of youthful joy.
Focussing on a single year in the life of the Williams, a middle class black American family. Waves is split into two distinct halves, the first focusing on the life of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). And the second on his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell). While the lives of their loving stepmother (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and stern but loving father (Sterling K. Brown) circle both acts.
Our story opens with Tyler, a young and highly gifted student, who loves sport and music in equal measure. His father pushing him to become the best athlete and man he can be. Their father and son relationship embodying both a strained and loving dynamic. As toxic masculinity rubs up against the need of a father to ensure his son escapes the trappings of discrimination inherent in American society.
However, as Tylers life spins out of control through injury and relationship problems with his girlfriend (Alexa Demie). He finds himself unable to speak to his family, trapped in his own spiralling despair. With the waves of his anger and lack of connectivity crashing up against an unsuspecting family. The ripples circling each family member as family life changes in the course of one explosive night. Leading to the second act as we follow his younger sister through the emotional rubble and pain of her brothers actions.
Shults dovetails the emotional themes of adolescence found in the coming of age genre, with a far more nuanced discussion on diversity and oppression. Ultimately creating a similar dynamic to Barry Jenkins Moonlight in the films narrative construct. While equally finding its own voice in devastating emotional turbulence and calm reflection and reconciliation.
Many viewers may see the blame for the calamitous events surrounding Tyler as a product of toxic masculinity, and detachment from his father. And while there are clear and strong messages on the role fathers play in creating environments of pressure. Shults delves much deeper than a simple disconnect between a teenage boy and his dad. As he weaves in themes of racism and social perception. With both parents determined to ensure their children rise above limitations of their skin colour. In a state and country where race can and does automatically limit opportunity.
And it is here where Waves is at its most fascinating in its narrative path. As it explores the challenge for parents in pushing their children too hard to achieve. The desire for their children to break the glass ceiling of racial profiling and discrimination ultimately leading to tragedy. However, there are also clear discussions on gender inequality with Tyler the main focus of parental energy. As his father lives his own life again through Tylers eyes, while ignoring the potential of his daughter. Even when his daughter holds the potential key to solving Tyler’s need for warmth and emotional connection.
Built around the dramatic events of the mid section, Waves flows with emotional turmoil, reconciliation and healing. Adjusting aspect ratios throughout to portray a world expanding and contracting as if viewing the events through the eyes of its characters. While editing plays with rhythm and colour, equally portraying the ripples of cause, effect and outcome. Wrapped in a score that ebbs and flows with the mood on screen. As the audience is taken from Dinah Washington’s ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ to Radiohead’s ‘True Love Waits’, and Kanye West. The sweeping and truly outstanding sound design using every inch of the auditorium to engulf the viewer. Once again placing them inside the action on screen, in turn allowing for a deep emotional connection.
Meanwhile, performances soar with power and quiet confidence. Never succumbing to melodrama, while embracing a natural and realistic aesthetic. Ultimately creating characters you believe in, root for and cry with as things spiral out of control mid way through.
Many will compare Waves to the recent work of Barry Jenkins, and these comparisons are in part justified. However, this is a film that also treads its own unique path in both design and delivery. With Trey Edward Shults further demonstrating his creative drive, and unique voice in modern cinema. However, despite its beauty, there are points where Waves looses its way during the second half, despite the outstanding performances of Lucas Hedges and Taylor Russell. With some themes of forgiveness and reconciliation feeling loose and far too easy despite the gut punching emotional impact. There is also a risk that the split story could lead to some viewers loosing focus. Especially within the second half of the narrative, where the pace slows to allow for reflection and thought. Ultimately creating two separate films.
But despite these minor flaws, Waves flows with sincerity, love, meaning and dramatic excellence. A truly beautiful piece of cinema that deserved far more praise during the 2020 award season than it would ultimately achieve.
Director: Trey Edward Shults