Trey Edward Shults is unequivocally one of the finest filmmakers of the new millennium. At only 31 years of age, he has a flair for authentic intimacy that rivals the likes of John Cassavetes, Krisha and It Comes At Night resolutely establishing his ability to commute the worst tangible familial fears into borderline horror. He has never taken anything into literal supernatural territory, but his utility of visuals and sound transform potentially saccharine human interest dramas into palpably humanistic and scary rollercoaster rides, a world away from your standard Hollywoodised family sagas where there are a few bumps in the road until a predictable peaches-and-cream denouement, with an overblown John Williams-like score and soap opera wrap-ups as a cherry on top. In his latest offering Waves, Shults delivers an extraordinarily gripping and poignant tale of adolescent angst, family dysfunction, addiction and first love.
Rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr, who has already made a hell of a mark in It Comes At Night and last year’s Luce, plays Tyler Williams, a well-liked and personable high school senior with a doting girlfriend, Alexis, and he’s also a burgeoning champion on the wrestling team. But all is not as well as it seems. Tyler’s father Ronald is well-intentioned and of staunch moral character, but he is domineering and somewhat intolerant of failure, constantly pushing Tyler to train hard and win harder, and is quick to lose patience if the kid talks back or falls short of standards. Ronald’s wife Catherine, Tyler’s stepmother, is openly more affectionate and far more sensitive to the pressure being placed on him, but she is constantly overshadowed by Ronald’s forceful personality, and younger sister Emily (the amazing up-and-comer Taylor Russell) doesn’t appear to empathise with her brother on any level at all. Tyler also has a serious shoulder injury that is threatening his career and general physical ability, and Alexis has announced that she’s been missing a few periods. The fact that he manages to hold it all together in the first place is a marvel.
As his respective problems increase in intensity, Tyler’s psyche begins to take some seriously hard knocks, and he elects to self-medicate with large quantities of painkillers and alcohol (not at the same time, mind you, as it would likely be a far shorter film if so). Cracking under the strain of Ronald’s autocratic parenting, he enters into a mentality of denial when his physician informs him that he can’t compete in any more wrestling matches until he’s undergone shoulder surgery, becoming even more erratic and perpetually enraged when Alexis voices her decision to carry a potential child to term. While Tyler’s deterioration is certainly sad and uncomfortable to endure, it plays almost like a thriller, Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ brooding electronic soundtrack instilling scenes with an overbearing sense of dread, leading us to be fearful of what Tyler may do to himself or to the people around him. It isn’t difficult to feel strongly for him as he desperately tries to manage and resolve his predicaments, and there is a wonderfully realistic touch to the fact that his worsening distress and deepening substance addiction contribute to his personality becoming all the more abrasive and unpredictable. A lesser film would have opted for a kid-gloves approach of making the audience’s sympathy for the protagonist immovable, and Harrison Jr. is blessed with an eerie gift for simultaneously breaking your heart and subtly making you feel threatened. You want to give the guy a hug but also lock him in the bathroom for the sake of everyone’ safety, including his own.
At a crucial turning point in the narrative, the film changes tack and it becomes apparent that it isn’t merely Tyler’s story but the story of the Williams family, of the constant struggle to catch all of life’s pitches, of youthful awakening, forgiveness and atonement. The tension and delirium are excellently counterbalanced by scenes of highly authentic tenderness, rendering the main character of the film to be a concept ultimately, that being life’s trials and tribulations and the multitude of approaches that we have to them. It’s a narrative 180 that has polarised critics and audiences, but I found it gave the picture an even more intelligent structure, widening its scope and making it a richer experience overall.
In conjunction to the Reznor-Ross original soundtrack, Waves offers up a refreshingly eclectic cache of earworms, featuring a heady dose of rap, R&B, alternative rock and avant-garde pop from the likes of Animal Collective, Tame Impala, Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar and Alabama Shakes, among many others. These tracks, not to mention Drew Daniels’ sublime cinematography, bring to life a dreamy and intoxicating vision of the tropicality of South Florida, making it look an alluring and vibrant place to spend a week or two, while also illustrating the landscape’s punishing humidity, a perfect aesthetic supplement for the mounting stresses and transformations that the characters undergo. The film’s opening sequence, a brightly-lit rotation shot in a car interior set to the ridiculously catchy ‘FloriDada’ by Animal Collective, will probably be bad news for viewers with vertigo, but it serves to brilliantly establish the films bittersweet tone.
As is always the annoying case with A24 productions, the film wasn’t released here in the U.K. until last month, a full two months after its general release in the United States, and more than ample time for it to have been surveyed by Academy voters. An Oscar nomination is obviously not an objective measurement of a film’s worth, but if we’re talking about the industry’s subjective recognition of outstanding talent, then it is axiomatically ridiculous that Waves hasn’t even had a look in. Aside from a smart, bold and immersive original screenplay, it features utterly believable performances from all players, with a special shout going to Sterling K. Brown as the pater familias, Ronald Williams. He cuts a proud and intimidating figure, and his pushy demands for excellence are certainly frustrating and insensitive, but he is undeniably a man who loves his wife and children deeply, and sincerely believes that they will thank him for his tough love later on. Brown’s ability to make a highly difficult man so sympathetic is a feat achieved by few actors, and I can guarantee that his performance alone annihilates many of the year’s nominees. With no intention of diverting the review into the territory of sociopolitical screed, I will say that there were several irrefutably superb films with predominantly black casts released last year, and the only black film that seems to have gotten a peek by the Academy is Harriet. Bit strange, that’s all.
A highly engaging and pathos-riddled family portrait, Waves excels in the creation of a story where every character’s perspective is relateable on one level or another. It inspires pain and tension, but also optimism and catharsis, offering up a raw, honest and comprehensive slice of life that challenges you to admit to yourself that you have been any or all of these people at some point. It’s a stunning achievement, and easily one of the best dramas of the 21st century so far.