Trey Edward Shults is quickly making a career out of absolutely shredding his audience’s nerves. With Waves, he takes his experience with psychological thrillers and applies it to a family drama. It’s his most ambitious effort, both in narrative and form, and while it mostly pays off, the result is unfortunately uneven. Bolstered by a bevy of strong performers, all putting in some of the strongest work of their careers, and an incredible soundtrack, Waves is a gripping, moving, and bold film.

Waves is likely to be divisive, but regardless of whether Shults pulls off the narratively and emotionally sprawling film he’s intended, you have to admire the sheer ambition on display. From the very first shot, it’s clear that the film’s resting heart rate is as frantic and booming as the Animal Collective song blaring on the soundtrack. The film opens in a car driving down the highway, with the camera spinning continuously at its center. We catch brief glimpses the passengers, loudly singing along with the song, seemingly paying no attention to the road. The dizzying camerawork is immediately jarring and intentionally nauseating, and the shot continues until we’re nearly certain a catastrophic car wreck is imminent. The rest of the film, though maybe not as aggressively off-putting, matches this kinetic energy. Waves is essentially a prolonged build-up to violent devastation, brimming with tension in each frame.

As mentioned before, the narrative is sprawling and goes in some unexpected directions. Luckily, I wasn’t aware of even the general plot, having only seen the (very misleading and fortunately vague) trailer, and in an effort to preserve the experience for others, I’ll only explore the very beginning of the story. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce, It Comes at Night) plays Tyler, a high school student with a lot weighing on his mind. He’s a star athlete on his school’s wrestling team, but he hides a severe shoulder injury that threatens to end his career, instead continuing his rigorous workout regimen through the pain. His father (Sterling K. Brown) is strict, projecting his expectations of how men should act onto his son and only affords his more tender side to Tyler’s sister, Emily. On top of everything else going on in his life, his relationship with his girlfriend is on the rocks, mostly due to him being emotionally unavailable.

This is really an oversimplification; Shults portrays the heavy, suffocating world around Tyler in a dynamic and complex manner that can’t be consolidated into a simple plot description. The film accelerates at such an amplified velocity, with each facet of Tyler’s life being further complicated by the minute. The filmmaking perfectly mirrors the chaotic stress he experiences, with whirling camerawork, intense sound design, and fractured editing all maximized for discomfort. It Comes at Night may have been Shutlz’s purest genre film, but Waves is no less horrifying. In many ways, by grounding it in a very real world, it’s his most starkly terrifying film.

Shults has said Waves is intended as a subjective experience, putting the audience directly in the headspace of its flawed protagonist, and in that respect, he absolutely succeeded. Though the film is more broadly about life’s natural ups and downs (hence the title), it’s also clearly an attempt to approximate the experience of growing up as a young black man in America today. Shults initially drew from his own life when he wrote the screenplay, but he’s stated that the film eventually turned into a more collaborative effort, with Harrison putting his personal experiences into the writing as well as his performance. The result is a film that’s as universal as it is specific, as beautiful as it is disturbing.

Appropriately, the soundtrack is colossal, compiling a wide array of the decade’s best artists including multiple songs from the aforementioned Animal Collective, Tame Impala, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Fuck Buttons, ASAP Rocky, Tyler the Creator, and a haunting track from Colin Stetson, who composed the score for Hereditary. Shults incorporates songs that suit each moment perfectly, essentially building a narrative through the music, and the characteristically stellar score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross serves as the film’s strong musical foundation.

Waves will not appeal to everyone, though. The film’s unconventional structure, pacing, and narrative will be enough to turn off most people, but even more adventurous audiences will find their expectations challenged. The distressing presentation – startling sound design, shifting aspect ratios, frenzied camerawork and editing – will be off-putting to those expecting a more poetic film akin to Moonlight. And even those able to stomach the abrasive formalism might find themselves repelled by the content, which approaches pure miserablism at times. It’s in no way a fun film to endure, but it’s ultimately rewarding, even with the rougher edges that emerge.

If most of this sounds like overwhelming praise, it’s because the elements that don’t work only come later in the film. Shults, in his attempt to portray the vastness of the world that connects us, falls short of making a completely cohesive film, but that’s a relatively small complaint for such an ambitious film that, for the bulk of the runtime, I found utterly gripping and emotionally resonant. While not entirely successful in scope, Waves is a compassionate, devastating, and thematically rich film about the waves of emotion that make us all human, from disgust to euphoria, shame to pride, guilt to redemption.


B+ Review

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