From its opening moments Trey Edward Shults’ Waves announces itself as a dizzying and unique affair. The constantly moving camera observes Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as he goes to wrestling team practice, parties with his girlfriend (Alex Demie), and studies for upcoming tests. The whirlwind repetitious nature of Tyler’s privileged life, coupled with the vibrant colour palette that offers moments of pause, create an almost dreamlike atmosphere. It as if one is witnessing the version of high school life that everyone wishes they had.
As we bask in the joys of youth, Shults slowly pulls the rug out from under us; revealing a dense pool of sorrow that is suffocating and unforgettable.
The warning signs were there of course. Despite being part of a wealthy family, whose home would make the Huxtables blush, the pressures on Tyler to succeed are great. Under intense scrutiny from his father (Sterling K. Brown), who knows the challenges that face black boys in America, Tyler pushes himself far beyond what his body can handle. Relying on painkillers to keep him competitive on the mat, the drugs and the weight of expectation send the him down a spiral that will forever change his family.
Through the destructive choices Tyler makes, Waves excels at being both a cautionary tale and a searing indictment of modern America. The emotionally devastating first half of the film touches on everything from the opioid crisis to the hypocrisy of the abortion debate to the fact that generations of young men are not being taught how to cope with the hardships of life. Shults then uses the latter half of the film to explore the pain and grief that often manifest as a result.
In paralleling the experiences of Tyler’s arc with that of his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) the film captures how simple choices can lead to drastically different results. This is especially true when observing the decline of their father and mother’s (Renée Elise Goldsberry) relationship. However, even in the vast ocean of sadness the film swims in, it still manages to find life rafts of hope.
Much like its title, Shults’ film overpowers you with waves of emotion and visual splendour. The filmmaking craft on display is exquisite as Shults plays with form and structure in a way that really hits it ultimate message of love and forgiveness home. Waves is the type of film that puts one through the emotional ringer only to offer a consoling hug afterwards. It is during this reflective embrace where the complex beauty of the film and life in general shines brightest.