It wouldn’t be wrong to call Waves a “teen drama,” but that generic label doesn’t begin to convey the emotional scope of this tender, bruising, exuberant film. With his third feature, writer-director Trey Edward Shults continues his inventive deep dive into the dynamics of family, an exploration that began with 2015’s sock-to-the-solar-plexus character study Krisha and then was distilled through a dark genre prism in It Comes at Night.
Like its predecessors, Waves is a movie that takes rewarding chances. Working with a combination of lesser-knowns and established actors (an eye-opening Sterling K. Brown and a thoroughly persuasive Lucas Hedges), Shults has made a serious, and seriously cinematic, drama about teenagers, and one whose true subject is compassion and forgiveness. The film is split into clearly defined halves, each one a love story. The dividing point between the two chapters is a calamitous event. The connective tissue between the two protagonists is that they’re siblings — a strutting high school athlete and his introspective younger sister, whose perspectives couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., who delivered a breakout turn as the watchful son in the psychological horror thriller It Comes at Night, is no less extraordinary here, in a very different mode. But the revelatory performance in Waves belongs to Taylor Russell, of Escape Room and the Netflix series Lost in Space, as the teen girl who comes to define the very soul of the story — and shatters the writerly orthodoxy that nice people don’t make compelling characters.
Set for an early-November release by A24, the feature, which heads to Toronto after its Telluride bow, is further evidence that Shults, at 30, is one of the most versatile and gifted young filmmakers working today.
He’s also a bold visual stylist, and in collaboration with his regular DP, Drew Daniels, creates an immersive, sensuous vocabulary from the movie’s South Florida setting. Deepening the film’s distinctly expressive language is the inventive nuance of the score by master conjurors Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Johnnie Burn’s sound design, too, is thoroughly in sync with the characters — at a painfully suspenseful moment, a referee’s whistle splinters the air like a death knell — and a propulsive soundtrack of vintage and contemporary songs infuses and drives the twinned narratives, lending some sequences a modern operatic sensibility.
Tyler (Harrison) and Emily (Russell) coexist with their parents in a spacious suburban house. The movie’s first section is his story, told with an explosive energy that barely lets up — until, in a devastating moment, the world drops away, silent and cold. The action opens with a kinetic rush, the camera making ecstatic — and frightening — 360-degree sweeps inside a car as it speeds down a Florida causeway. Eighteen-year-old Tyler, at the wheel, and his girlfriend, Alexis (a memorable Alexa Demie), are mutually infatuated and flush with the invincibility of youth.
But on the home front, Tyler faces the constant judgment of his humorless father, Ronald (Brown, striking unexpected notes of ferocity), the proud owner of a construction business. The man never misses an opportunity to remind his son of the hard work that goes into maintaining their well-to-do lives. Matters of race for this family of Black Americans are woven into the narrative both subtly (“We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” Ronald tells Tyler) and with harsh directness, as when the teen is accosted by a hateful stranger.
Complicating the father-son rivalry, Tyler’s dad is his take-no-prisoners wrestling trainer. When they arm-wrestle in the middle of a restaurant during a post-church family lunch, there’s nothing playful about it. On some level Ronald is also competing with his physician wife, Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry, quietly imposing). She dishes out the parental tough love as much as he does, but always with an eye toward smoothing things over.
With the swagger of someone who hasn’t the slightest doubt about his entitlement, Tyler is a classic case of hubris headed for a fall. He and his teammates bark locker-room affirmations (“I cannot be taken down!”), and he’s certain that nothing can get in his way. The fall, when it happens, is horrendous. And though the portent of disaster has pulsed through nearly every exchange, the brutal, irreversible moment still packs a wallop — because, like everything in the film, it arises out of complex, fully fleshed characterizations.
It might make sense to blame Tyler’s woes on toxic masculinity, but it would also be reductive; Shults is interested in the heartbeats and synapses and barely crystallized doubts beneath easy labels. He’s interested in the ways that parents doing what they believe to be their best can get things so wrong, and how much pain and confusion kids keep to themselves. A star at home and at school, Tyler finds his identity stripped away by a sidelining injury, and as he dives into a numbing stew of opioids, booze and weed, and lashes out at the people closest to him, it becomes alarmingly evident how isolated he feels.
In more obvious ways, the sweet-faced Emily (Russell), too, is alone. During most of the film’s first hour she’s a standard, mildly resentful younger sister, and her role in the drama is minimal. But when she crosses a nighttime hallway to tend to her wasted, retching brother, a spark ignites — a bright, sharp picture of who she is, sowing the seeds for a breathtaking flowering in the second half of the film.
Amid family reckonings, Emily and a fellow student, Luke (Hedges, in his strongest performance since Manchester by the Sea, which similarly tilled the soil of forgiveness), get to know each other. From their charmingly awkward flirtation at school to the life-changing road trip that they share like true soul mates, we watch them blossom along with this first love.
Packed with foreboding, the first section can feel overdetermined. Every flickering traffic light, every barreling train or overflowing bathtub spells looming trouble. But it’s in the way Shults opens up the drama in the second half, which is Emily’s story, and constriction gives way to expansiveness, that the wisdom of the movie’s structure becomes luminously clear.
Built around a drastic rift, the two sections of Waves use framing schemes, editing rhythms and palettes that are different yet complementary. The first half shares some of the sexed-up, Florida-humid flamboyance that production designer Elliott Hostetter helped bring to Spring Breakers (whose director, Harmony Korine, cameos here). But Shults’ scenes of house parties and electric-blue beach dusks are tinged with an undertow of dread, danger and melancholy. There’s a poignant romantic shimmer, too, in a prom-night sequence — a veil of hopeful light that will soon be in shreds.
The shift to a calmer, slower pace signals the impulse toward healing in Emily’s side of the story. It’s a hard-won healing, a head-on grappling with grief and guilt, the kind of difficult work that can only have joy — the belief in it, the quest for it — at its core.
Waves‘ power is inseparable from its intricate aesthetic layers. But what resounds most potently are the simplest, most direct exchanges: lovers’ voices rising in spiraling anger, a parent and child confessing their innermost fears, and the way the searching conversation of two shy teenagers, facing each other across a diner booth, can tear your heart out.
Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Production companies: A24, , JW Films, BRON Studios
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Clifton Collins Jr.
Screenwriter-director: Trey Edward Shults
Producers: James Wilson, Kevin Turen, Trey Edward Shults
Executive producer: Jacob Jaffke
Director of photography: Drew Daniels
Production designer: Elliott Hostetter
Costume designer: Rachel Dainer-Best
Editors: Isaac Hagy, Trey Edward Shults
Composers: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Sound designer: Johnnie Burn
Colorist: Damien Van Der Cruyssen
Casting directors: Avy Kaufman, Jenny Conrader, Mark Mullen