Time Out says
A golden boy loses his footing—and a younger sister gains hers—in Trey Edward Shults’s radiant family tragedy.
It’s taken him three films, but over the course of those indies, writer-director Trey Edward Shults has ruined Thanksgiving (2015’s excruciating domestic psychodrama Krisha) and spoiled the world with plague (the majestically paranoid It Comes at Night). Now, with Waves, he obliterates a hardworking Florida family before delivering some nearly cosmic forgiveness in the movie’s second half. All of his films feel like personal exorcisms—Shults may best be described as a nonsupernatural-horror director—but his new one is a true breakthrough, the kind of movie in which a confident young orchestrator is making greater sense of things. Waves shudders with ambition and nervy style; it never quite relaxes after its harrowing first hour, but the longer it stretches out, the more humane it feels.
Shults has a signature shot in which his camera rotates like the searching eye of a lighthouse—or a police siren—and Waves exploits it beautifully. It’s how we meet the black high school wrestler Tyler (It Comes at Night’s Kelvin Harrison Jr., impressively precise with his character’s steep decline), cruising in the car with his girlfriend. Shults takes in the happy moment with his swirling camera: Tyler swaddled in his middle-class comforts, with their attendant crush of expectations. Over the coming weeks, several bad things will happen to Tyler, a few of which are made infinitely worse by his own impulsive actions and confusion. Waves turns this descent into an extended run of Job–worthy misfortune: By the time Shults returns to that spinning-lens trick, Tyler crying in the bathtub with a cheeseburger, we are spiraling down the drain with him.
And still, it gets worse. There’s a touch of overstatement to Shults’s story, goosed by the nauseating synth drones of The Social Network’s Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who convert everything they work on into a dark fable. The wrestling ends, the relationship ends, the pills come out, and the reversal of fortune gives you whiplash. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” says Tyler’s father (This Is Us’s Sterling K. Brown, taut with concern), but apart from that line, Waves doesn’t play like a statement on race so much as an indictment of the Kanye-scored, dumped-via-text pressure cooker that is being a teenager in 2019. (Shults, it should be mentioned, is white.)
Carefully, I’ll stress that Waves is far from being over; its second section is where the movie widens into a kind of redemption narrative. Shaken by her circumstances, Tyler’s sullen younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), blooms in the attentions of a sweetly dorky boyfriend (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges), and not so suddenly, this universe seems like less of a death trap. Shults’s technique finds a new intimacy as well—closer to the actors and yet less oppressive. Waves, like all of his films, is about family, but this time, it’s not a portrait of suffocation. The artistic evolution Shults is undergoing makes him as exciting as anyone working today—he’s as sharp as a young Darren Aronofsky, and his heart is only growing larger.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf
Cast and crew
Sterling K. Brown