Over the course of the decade, director Trey Edward Shults has proven time and time again that he is not a filmmaker you want to mess around with. After directing a handful of shorts throughout the early 2010s, he made his smash debut with the 2015 thriller Krisha, which he followed up in 2017 with the riveting, savage psychological horror film It Comes at Night. Both of those prior outings were incredibly tense, gripping glimpses of families catapulted into an unwanted conflict. The former takes place at Thanksgiving dinner, and the latter during a grim apocalypse.
Waves continues the trend of Shults’ incredibly tense storytelling, but unlike his other films, something the viewer notices is how vast it is—there are no confined spaces and no intruding external forces on the characters. It’s a film that takes place largely in the present—focusing on the people, places, and moments that make us who we are. Despite the environmental changes, there are, however, plenty of internal forces that push and push at both the people on the screen and the viewer themselves.
Waves follows a family living in South Florida, led by the domineering Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and his more even-tempered wife, Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). Ronald’s two children, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell), deal with their own issues between school and home. Tyler’s life is turned upside-down by a text from his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and with the mounting pressures of a serious wrestling injury, he soon turns to alcohol and substance abuse to remedy the pain, until he eventually spirals totally out of control. In the wake of this turn of events, Emily finds solace in Luke (Lucas Hedges), a kind classmate who allows her to break out of her shell.
Shults has never been a filmmaker to hold back on emotional finesse, but the way he has evolved over time is very clear. Krisha and It Comes at Night are both cold, desolate films that show us the light in humanity by portraying the darkness at the forefront of the narrative. While the thematic bleakness stays front-and-center for the first half of Waves, Shults takes a 180° turn and, in a move that will shock many, departs from the erratic, unstable nature that fully defines the inaugural act. The script goes from pulse-poundingly rigid to gracefully free-flowing. Complemented by Drew Daniels’ lurid cinematography and an electric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, both halves feel distinct in their own right.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., who has already come a long way since his lead role in It Comes at Night, packs a powerhouse performance within the confines of the time he spends on-screen. So far in this decade, I have to encounter an actor as young as he is that is so deeply formidable and vulnerable at the same time. There’s a scene midway through the film that will haunt me for the rest of my life. Taylor Russell gives an equally powerful portrayal that mirrors the film’s backdrop of the sand underneath the waves. Russell’s performance is soaked in emotion and balances the line between heartwarming and heartbreaking in the best of ways. I haven’t resonated more with a pair of characters more in my whole life. This may sound hyperbolic, but I can guarantee you that it isn’t. While Tyler’s arc forces the viewer to grapple with the internal collapse of one’s own sanity, Emily’s arc allows them to heal themselves and recognize the flaws that make us human.
This is all accompanied by the effervescent melodies of Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead, Alabama Shakes, Tame Impala, Animal Collective, and Tyler, the Creator (plus a handful of other artists). At first, one might think that the music simply acts as a filter to create its own sensational artificiality, but it actually helps the viewer forge stronger attachments to certain scenes and characters. Kanye’s “I Am A God” and Frank Ocean’s “Seigfried” enrich particularly standout moments. These songs exist on a level almost identical to the movie itself, drifting in their own dreamlike presence (whether that dream is divinely pretty or masked in shadows).
Something else that Shults utilizes to the film’s advantage is the shifting aspect ratios. The way the aspect ratio gradually closes in as Tyler’s mental state deteriorates pushes at the viewer’s anxiety levels, cranking up the claustrophobia level to the max. However, this allows for even more perfect visual storytelling, as the camera closes in on Tyler’s face and flashing lights transition smoothly into Emily’s, as the camera zooms back out. Over the course of the next hour, the aspect ratio opens up again as Emily herself begins to allow herself to open up her personality. Drew Daniels’ cinematography conveys the vividness of the narrative in such brilliant fashion, it might as well be its own character—a colourful, vibrant tidal wave of radiant emotion. The hues rush over you in the most beautiful way; you can practically feel the warmth against your skin.
If you’ve been searching for the film that most accurately portrays Generation Z’s hopes and dreams, trials and tribulations, look no further. This is the first time in close to three years that a film has taken me under its influence in such a transfixing way. The audience were not separate entities; we were a collective body. When one gasped, we all gasped. Waves hurls you against the wall and shatters your core, but then it takes time to pick up the broken pieces and heal you in the most transcendent way possible. It paints an electrifying portrait of a family collapsing and finding the means to rebuild, tackling every emotion that lies within the pathway of the human condition. Every scene, every shot, and every line of dialogue are richly layered with passion. Waves is Trey Edward Shults’ magnum opus, and irrefutably the film of a lifetime. The best cinematic experience of the year? Without question.
Waves crashes into theaters on November 15th