Trey Edward Shults’s “Waves” opens with a scene that is almost deliriously joyful, but underscored with a deep undercurrent of impending doom.
Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his girlfriend Alexis Lopez (Alexa Demie) are driving a little too fast on the highway, singing a little too loud to “Floridada” by Animal Collective.
It is an indelible image of young love, but then the dread starts kicking in.
Shults starts spinning his camera faster and faster. With each rotation, you notice something different. Neither of the teens are wearing a seat belt. Tyler’s sticking an entire leg out of the car window and keeps taking his hands off the wheel. And you can swear that the teens are getting way too close to the car in front of them. You brace yourself for a collision.
It never comes. But Shults’s message resonates none the less: It could all be gone in a second.
Tyler’s downfall, when it does come midway through “Waves,” is almost Shakespearean – an undoing caused by hubris and destructive choices and hatred. But unlike Shakespeare, Shults doesn’t end there. In fact, he has a whole other story to tell: How does a family move forward after such a tragedy?
Why, with love, of course.
Shults’s answer may seem a little obvious, a little pat. But it’s not. Love is hard. Love is challenging. Love, like hatred, is a choice we have to make every day, and hatred too often comes easier. But love is the only way we can find our way back home.
Hatred stirs up strife, the film tells us, but love covers all offenses.
“Waves” is an emotional and deeply felt film, and it is one of 2019’s best – both aesthetically and emotionally. It plunges us deep into the abyss of hatred, only to remind us that love will pull us out if we allow it to.
The plot of “Waves” is really two stories, which are split between the film’s distinct halves.
The first half is Tyler’s story. A star wrestler with college prospects, a beautiful girlfriend and loving family, Tyler has his whole life ahead of him.
Then Tyler finds out his shoulder is torn, and Shults pulls out his first filmmaking trick.
The aspect ratio changes from 1:85:1 to 2:40:1. The darkness is literally tightening around Tyler.
It only gets tighter as Tyler starts abusing drugs and alcohol, lying to his parents and breaking up with his girlfriend. Shults tightens the camera three more times before ending Tyler’s story with a boxlike 1:33 ratio. It is as good a visualization I’ve seen of how despair and bad decisions can smother hope.
Tyler’s story ends with an unforgivable crime – one that touches everyone he loves and earns him a life sentence in prison.
But the brilliance of Shults’s film, I think, is that it doesn’t end in the box. The focus abruptly shifts to Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell), and eventually the aspect ratio starts changing again – growing wider and wider. It doesn’t happen quickly because healing never does. But as Emily runs toward love and forgiveness, she finds something approximating peace.
Shults’s script is as lovely and emotional as it is melodramatic and cliched, but the director’s artistic nuance prevents the film from feeling predictable and corny. If Shults utilizes some standard coming-of-age tropes, he has also refashioned them into something new and exciting.
The swirling camera work and aspect ratio switches are Shults’s most creative directorial touches, but he has other grace notes as well. His use of color is radiant, and his expertly chosen playlist of 39 songs accentuates the film’s mood in interesting and enlightening ways.
Shults also puts a lot of trust in his relatively young performers, and they reward him handsomely. Harrison has the flashier performance, and he brings it to life with a raw energy all his own. But this film simply wouldn’t work without Russell, and her quietly nuanced performance gives this story its heart.
Lucas Hedges gives what is perhaps the finest and sweetest performance of his young career as Emily’s boyfriend. And Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry bring deep emotion to the roles of Emily and Tyler’s parents.
But all the directorial polish and strong performances in the world can’t fully redeem a film that is morally bankrupt, and it’s the beating emotional heart of “Waves” (rated R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content, and brief drug and alcohol use – all involving teens) that helps it soar.
“What a difference a day makes,” the soundtrack of “Waves” reminds us in the voice of Dinah Washington. Hatred can destroy us for a day, but hope comes in the morning – if we allow it to.
Even though one mistake can change us forever, there is always a new day to heal, “Waves” tells us. That is an extraordinary miracle worth celebrating. And, in its own small ways, “Waves” feels pretty miraculous too.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at email@example.com.