TIFF ’19: Family Epic ‘Waves’ Is a Visual Flood with Shallow Meaning

About halfway through the second spin of the merry-go-round camera that opens Waves, you start to get dizzy enough to look away. Some classic Tame Impala reverb bounces through the background, the blues and whites of the Florida sky glow unnaturally bright, and Euphoria sweetheart Alexa Demie hangs out her boyfriend’s car window, flashing a smile. It’s a 2019 film about teenagers, baby—if you didn’t know, now you know.

Waves writer-director Trey Edward Shultz isn’t afraid to dive headfirst into this bold style, accusations of parody and sameness be damned, and his commitment pays off. With Euphoria and Thunder Road cinematographer Drew Daniels by his side, Shultz delivers over two hours of consistently stunning visual narrative, each sequence challenging and creative, yet perfectly balanced and self-assured. These visuals mesh seamlessly with an electric score by Nine Inch Nails duo Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, as well as an overloaded soundtrack of thumping Kanye and Frank Ocean tracks. It all leads you to believe Waves could be a great movie.

But in the end, this beautiful direction is built upon nothing—a script teeming with platitudes, underdeveloped characters, and a shallow concept of trauma, race, and our interconnected nature. Although the film’s powerhouse cast does their best to uplift the story they’ve been given, Waves isn’t able to offer much of substance, only goosebumps and grand gestures. Comparisons to Magnolia and The Tree of Life (which Shultz cut his teeth working on) may capture the scale of this film, but they’re ultimately inadequate. Waves wants so badly to be an epic, it forgets how to just tell a story.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Alexa Demie in Waves © A24

The film’s primary focus is the disintegration of a picture-perfect American family: Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr. of this year’s Luce), a handsome, charismatic high school senior, his quiet younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), and their passionate yet strict father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and hard-working step-mother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). The children’s mother passed away from a drug overdose long ago, but that history doesn’t show itself immediately. In a sunny South Florida home the color of sand, they live a comfortable middle-class life. 

Tyler is something of a golden boy, with his star placement on the school wrestling team, gorgeous girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and immense pressure from his father to succeed. All his late nights studying and partying and early mornings training seem to be taking their toll—it’s not long before we seem his popping his father’s painkillers to fight through the growing pain in his right shoulder. It’s the first red flag of many indicating Tyler isn’t able to cope with the life he’s been given, or perhaps the one he’s chosen. But it’s this singular decision—the one to ignore his own pain—that seems to seal Tyler’s fate.

Although Kelvin Harrison Jr. gives a remarkably empathetic, nuanced performance as a young man with the world on his shoulders, Waves doesn’t seem to have the same complex empathy for the character. We never really learn who Tyler is outside his mistakes, and the script regularly uses him as a prop for grueling pain and sentimentality. In the film’s first half, Tyler is pushed to physical and emotional extremes, with one sequence of perfectly sound-designed body horror as disgusting as anything in Suspiria. In its latter half, when Emily takes over as the principal character, Tyler is only invoked as a symbol, never a real person with a rich inner life. 

‘Waves’ © A24

For a story as grand and sweeping as Waves, having symbols for characters makes logistical sense. In theory, it would allow the narrative to reach greater heights, touch more people, apply more universal ideas. And who doesn’t want to be swept away? But Waves insistence on universalism, symbolism, and narrative balance leaves the entire tale limp, almost meaningless in all its meaning. It consistently makes observations without expanding on them.

Emily, like Tyler, is initially characterized only by cliches and the things that happen to her. She’s timid, she’s pretty, and she’s a favorite of the older boys. Her father, snapped shut by his own pain and relationship to masculinity, doesn’t know how to talk to her. And even as a young teenager, she plays caregiver to just about everyone in her life. When Waves shifts to her perspective, we only begin to understand her through her relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges, straight out of the A24 basement), a sweet kid from Tyler’s wrestling team. 

As Emily and Luke grow closer, Waves does begin to find some much-needed levity and self-reflection—they go swim with manatees, they joke about singing Vampire Weekend in the shower, they have sex. But when the film comes back around to its source and tries to make a point about regret and forgiveness, it reveals how little it actually has to say. 

In a heartfelt talk with Emily, Ronald pops off a single line about struggling to succeed as a black man in America, the only real time the film tries to interrogate the relationship between race and Kevin’s fate. Their discussion is vague and filled with platitudes, seeming to settle on the idea that no one and everyone is guilty, and forgiveness is challenging but possible. It feels like Sterling K. Brown carried a rejected This Is Us script into a Harmony Korine movie (Korine even makes an earlier appearance as Alexis’ father). The world is cruel and complicated, and love is vast—but what should we do with that knowledge? Waves doesn’t seem to know.

You can check out the rest of our TIFF ’19 coverage here

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