Director: Trey Edward Shults
Stars: Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Alexa Demie
Cast your mind back seven (!) years or so, and some of you might well remember the hard-swerve encountered while watching Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines, a film which very suddenly revealed itself to be episodic in nature, and whose focal character became something of a recurring hand-off. Cianfrance fumbled the ball in that instance, but his film springs to mind while watching Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. Not because Shults pulls off the same trick with greater panache; rather because you can see his play coming a mile off.
Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is in school and wants to be a professional wrestler. His dad, Ronald (Sterling K Brown), applies a lot of pressure in this regard, making Tyler even more reluctant to confront the weakness in his shoulder. His girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) is late on her period, too. Increasingly, it seems as though the future he wants isn’t the future he’s going to get, and Tyler’s frustration at this pushes him to make a series of exceedingly poor decisions.
The path to this inevitable moment feels like a test. As Tyler spirals, Shults point-blank refuses to do anything to make the lad worth championing. Waves feels like a movie about the tragedy of angry young men (not an untimely theme for American cinema) and in kind follows a path both contrived and wearily predictable. In the act of watching it feels like a game of chicken between the audience and the director. Is Shults daring us to give up? An act of violence cuts the film in half and Shults (in an act as blunt as any other here) switches aspect ratios to accentuate the demarcation.
The second half of the film finds another focus; Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Now feeling ostracised from her peers, Emily reacts with suspicion when one of Tyler’s fellow wrestlers, Luke (Lucas Hedges), shows interest in her. Reeling from a recent shock, Emily must decide how much she is prepared to let her guard down as life at home slowly implodes.
When the trailers for A24’s latest offering appeared in select cinemas, it was difficult to know what to make of it. A picturesque, lilting, Florida-set love letter to… something? At it’s most reductive it looked very post-Moonlight; kind of generically poetic. But the slipperiness of that wasn’t reassuring, as though not even its promoters knew what to make of it. Or that something was being held back.
Well, yes, of course something was being held back and that was the point. Waves is a tricky one. For all it’s exotic flourishes of colour and Malick-lite wonder, its a tremendously arduous film to watch. It doesn’t give you a good time, not in any traditional sense. And the very vagueness of its title and promotion only comes into clarity as the art itself wriggles in your grasp.
Shults is prone to some very overt gestures. Let’s talk about the source music for a moment. His pointed needle-drops are distracting. One almost gets the sense that he would rather you investigate his Spotify account than his film. Their sledgehammer appearance becomes something of a calling card. See also a penchant from fast-roaming camerawork that seems pilfered from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but which here lacks a clear sense of purpose. At other times he simple sets the camera whirling in circles; a restless approach that suggests an over-stimulated dog’s lack of direction and an internal struggle to wrestle the picture into coherence.
The film tentatively becomes about trying to make the best out of a bad lot; of achieving grace in spite of things. Ronald tells his son that they will always have to work twice as hard to achieve anything in the world, and the unspoken pressure point in the conversation is race. That everything about the modern African American experience is set within parentheses. That even a seemingly affluent middle class family are burdened by the connotation that they’re second class citizens. Waves amounts to a messy melodrama balanced on the shoulders of siblings. It is a self-conscious and pained experience about a self-conscious and pained experience.
Russell, good in last year’s creative horror yarn Escape Room, raises her game here, marking herself out as someone to keep check on over the next few years. Brown, meanwhile, genuinely surprises in a scene he shares with young Russell flanked by a thermos flask and fishing gear.
The second half of the film places the first in greater context. The bubble of Tyler’s downward trajectory becomes just that; something that we can now look at from a remove. Another perspective. It also places emphasis on the bubble itself; a neat reminder that other worlds exist outside of the sphere of our own crises. When our bubbles burst, the fallout can be far reaching. Waves ripple out and, if we’re lucky, there’s some good mixed in with the bad. The same can be said of Shults’ film overall.
I admire this sometimes chaotic act of expression. It is, at the very least, a bolder, more idiosyncratic stab at audience derailment than Cianfrance’s.