There are moments in our lives that divide our psyches. Intense, unrelenting trauma can destroy a person and forever change them. There are dozens of examples across film and literature, from pop culture gods like Voldemort to quiet pages of Of Mouse and Men. More often than not, these hurricane moments pull others into the storm, and this destruction can be the most fertile ground for exploration. Trey Edward Shults brings this exploration to life in gorgeous and absurdly personal Waves. There are before and after moments throughout the film, but one thing is clear: Shults will be known as a very good director before Waves, and a master after.
Waves opens on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a young man growing up in South Florida. He wrestles, parties with his friends, and has fallen in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). At home, he has a seemingly perfect life. His sister Emily (Taylor Russell) keeps to herself in her room, his step-mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) cares for him, and his father (Sterling K. Brown) pushes him to excel. Yet beneath the surface, Tyler feels the pressure building.
Shults brings Waves to life as a roaring statement of visual and audio splendor. Pumping out tunes from Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Radiohead, Shults appears to have a synesthesic ability to utilize his soundtrack for storytelling. The use of pop and rap became so integral to the film, it was misreported to be a musical early in its development. When “I Am a God” or “Backseat Freestyle” fade into the background, Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor pick up the pieces with a haunting score. The film’s use of color further immerses you, and the stylistic cinematography from Drew Daniels recalls Malik’s best work. The bright pinks, blues, and reds lead to some of the best use of bright fluorescent colors since Her. Paired with the music, Waves combines the visual audacity of bright colors with the roaring soundtrack to create a Fantasia-like dream aesthetic.
Yet even more interesting, Waves’ two-part structure cannot be ignored as an impressively daring storytelling tactic. There are moments before trauma and after trauma. There’s a real chance that you’ll hate the film at some point. I must confess, I felt disconnected from the story for some time. Yet the crescendo of the film crashes down on you and sweeps you away. Shults showcases the broken pieces of the people in life and recontextualizes them into a harrowing tale of love.
The entire cast comes to play, and its nearly impossible to single out a performer from the cast. The closest must be Russell, who earns breakout status for the moving portrayal of Emily. Her quiet disposition gives way to an emotional avalanche, and you want to reach into the screen and hug her. Luckily, Brown’s intense and loving role as her father is there to try to pick up the pieces. Despite the jokes about Brown as a tear-jerking, emotional actor, Brown’s range comes out in full force. In limited screentime, you can read every emotion across his face, and his world-view intimately shapes the events in question.
At the same time, Goldsberry and Harrison soar to their own heights. Harrison will become a superstar in the vein of Michael B. Jordan. He channels rage and charisma in similar, but even that undersells his incredible performance. To go from the young and quiet boy in Shults’ It Comes at Night to this tornado of a young man in Waves, it’s clear we have a prodigy on our hands. Goldsberry nearly stole the movie for me in one confrontation, and when she’s on-screen it is impossible to take your eyes off her. It’s truly one of the best performances of Motherhood this decade, even with the baggage she carries. With each of our four performers operating at different frequencies, the combined power creates an undeniably rich text of emotion and love.
Waves will likely be overlooked this year as the most recent film in the A24 “Florida Series,” including the experimental and pretty films Moonlight, Spring Breakers, and The Florida Project. Yet each of these films takes different approaches to their material, and somehow Waves might be the loudest of all. Shults announced himself as a must-watch director when Krisha turned heads in 2015. Waves is the most ambitious and emotional film of his young career. It’s one of 2019 best and earns strong consideration to be included in any best of the decade list currently under construction.