Before a single scene of Waves screens, the poster declares that it’s from the producers of HBO’s hit series Euphoria. As soon as the film begins, it’s not hard to see why. Relying on mostly audio and visual storytelling, Waves is incredibly focused and intimate, but it’s also overly long, falling apart after an explosive moment that it never fully recovers from.
Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves‘ story is an emotionally complicated one to explain. On one hand, it’s very much about the inner workings of an urban African American family living in Miami. On the other, it specifically chronicles the events of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr) as he faces the pressures of being a teenager, not disappointing his father (Sterling K. Brown), staying on the wrestling team, and being there for his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). The trajectory completely alters to encompass the emotional impact the events of the first act have on the family. The final act works to give closure, but Waves spends so much time building up to a big moment without allowing space for Emily (Taylor Russell) to get more insight, especially since she’s largely left out of the first half of the film.
Trey Edward Shults’ Waves masterfully weaves together audio and visual elements to build tension and suspense. The first half of the film is especially focused, infusing a sense of seriousness and anguish throughout. The sensory overload is often as gripping as it is terrible. The escalation is fantastic and gripping, leading to a horrifically shocking moment that was last seen and felt in Hereditary. It leads to an emotionally-charged fallout with repercussions that reverberate throughout the remainder of the film. There is no turning back, just coming to terms with what is. The film is so intimately filmed, in fact, that it’s often hard to take the brewing rage that ripples underneath. Every moment is compounded and, like a ripple effect, manages to touch the lives of so many.
There’s so much to say about the performances, nuanced and emotional as they are. Without the strength of the actors’ portrayals, Waves wouldn’t have been as easy to get through. The film is set up so that the audience’s gaze can wander and linger, examine and understand as though mere visitors. The actors do a phenomenal job of conveying the myriad of emotions. From shock to anger, guilt to despondency, the feelings are raw and real.
That said, Waves falters when trying to switch up its game. The shift in focus from Tyler’s perspective to Emily’s is jarring and unexpected. Simply put, there’s no coming back from Tyler’s actions and it’s hard to make peace with the film for going there, but it asks for viewers’ patience anyway. Even while the escalation is great, Waves drops all of its interesting plotlines the moment it goes for shock value and that’s a hard pill to swallow. Shults doesn’t need to take such drastic measures to get a point across, and definitely when it wasn’t a particularly good point either. Waves ends by foregoing any genuine exploration of teen angst and that leaves a lot to be desired.
Waves drops all of its interesting plotlines the moment it goes for shock value and that's a hard pill to swallow.