Warning: Review Contains Major Spoilers
Before the autumn movie season started the one big film that really left me unsure what to expect out of was probably Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. This might partly be because it wasn’t really a movie that could be easily summed up with a sentence long summery beyond “it’s about a family that stuff happens to or something.” It might also be because, though he has a distinct style, Trey Edward Schults hasn’t quite become a brand yet and he isn’t exactly tied to any one kind of movie. It may also be that the critics who’ve seen it have been respectful but haven’t exactly been unified in raving about it. The film’s trailer is beautiful, but not overly plot oriented. Its lingering shots of young African Americans on South Florida beaches would seem like an attempt to make it look like a sort of heterosexual Moonlight (a film released by the same studio). That comparison isn’t entirely off but the actual similarities are somewhat superficial. The film we did get is something a bit faster paced and more eventful in good ways and bad ways.
The film largely revolves around an upper middle-class Floridian family and specifically focuses on a teenage boy in this family named Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Tyler is on the high school wrestling team and his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) puts immense pressure on him to perform to his highest ability while seemingly neglecting his sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Tyler is on edge already when he gets what seems like the worst news he could possibly receive: he has serious shoulder injuries and will likely need to give up on wrestling for a long time. Being the impulsive teenager that he is he immediately goes into denial about this and continues wrestling. On top of that he has just learned that his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) is pregnant and he has no ideas how to handle this news. Later on we meet one of Tyler’s teammates named Luke (Lucas Hedges) who begins a relationship with Emily.
Much of the first half of Waves is rooted in putting the audience in the head of a seventeen year old as he makes a series of increasingly disastrous seventeen year old mistakes, each one with bigger consequences than the last. To show this Trey Edward Schults plays around with aspect ratios (a trick he’s done on other films as well) in order to emphasize what’s happening on screen. He starts the film in a screen filling 1.85:1 and then letterboxes the image down as the situation on screen becomes more dire before then snapping into the Academy ratio at a key low point. This pattern then reverses itself in the movie’s second half as people are given a chance to heal. Outside of that little trick there’s a lot to like about the film visually. Before he was directing his own films Schults worked as an intern for Terrence Malick and that influence shows more here than it did with his first two films. The film doesn’t really take on Malick’s narrative style with voice-over and the like but it’s certainly interested in capturing modern life with a sort of ethereal beauty. The film also has what is to my ears a really solid soundtrack of recent R&B, but this is perhaps an element where Trey Edward Schults kind of tips his hand as being a white millennial making a movie about black teenagers as this is a very Pitchfork approved vision of what urban music sounds like. I think modern teenagers are on average more into Migos than Frank Ocean, is what I’m saying. But maybe having a great soundscape trumps generational authenticity.
Where the movie starts to lose me is in the structure. When you split a movie right down the middle into two halves like this you are in many ways courting trouble as the audience can’t help but look at the two halves and compare them directly and in this case that can lead to a very unflattering interpretation. One half of the movie depicts something of a worst case scenario for how a teen relationship and the other half depicts something of a best case scenario… and given that the one that ends in violence involves a black male and the non-violent half involves a white male… well, you can see how that could be seen as a potentially problematic message that equates black men with violence and white men with gentleness. I don’t for a minute think that that’s what Trey Edward Shults was intending to say with the film and there are elements of the film that work against that reading of the film like the apparent past violence of the Lucas Hedges character’s father but I do think that is a byproduct of a structure that so plainly invites the viewer to compare these two relationships one against the other and once that interpretation took hold in my mind it became a bit of a distraction.
Even beyond any paranoia around racial messaging, I think that second half could have been improved by simply adding some complicating factors to that relationship to make it something other than the absolute platonic ideal of a teen romance. After all, the relationship in the first half wasn’t all bad so why should the relationship in the second half be all good? The film’s title seems to imply a sort of dichotomy between peaks and valleys in life, but maybe he should have had smaller waves in mind rather than giant tidal waves. But I don’t want to focus too much on the elements of the film I was uneasy about because there was a lot about it that definitely worked. That first half is pretty great the whole way through and it’s doing some great things stylistically. Part of me worries that this is going to get lost in the year end shuffle and that A24 isn’t going to be able to prioritize it over their other films for award consideration, but another part of me almost hopes that it doesn’t get so big that it needs to fight off the hot take writers of the world. It’s a hard movie to describe and talk about in general, and also a hard movie to recommend to certain audiences given the gamut of different tones and emotions it goes through. But it is a very interesting effort to be sure and people interested in modern indie cinema should give it a look.
***1/2 out of Five