Before getting into this review, I want to encourage you to stop reading, go see this film, then come back. I went into Waves blind, only knowing it was written and directed by Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) and that Alexa Demie (Mid90s, Brigsby Bear, Euphoria) was in it. I think that’s the best way to see Waves. Additionally, I feel like I’m spoiling the film just by discussing its basic narrative and structure, even without going into specific plot points. In short, I don’t think I can properly address the themes of Waves without tainting your first viewing experience of the film. So go catch a screening, and afterward, while you’re trying to process what you just saw, give this a read.
As I said, I had no idea what Waves was about prior to watching it. The trailer was fantastic in its ability to tease the film’s style and aura without giving away its plot. I’d previously seen headlines alluding to themes of masculinity, family, and forgiveness, but that always felt like another way of saying “boy’s coming-of-age drama.” There’s nothing wrong with that classification, but it’s grown steadily more frustrating to see so many movies of the sort garner attention and praise while coming-of-age films for girls, especially girls of color, typically fly under the radar. This is why Waves took me by complete surprise by subverting a boy-dominated genre and critiquing its ignorance.
Waves begins with the whirlwind of senior year. High schooler Tyler Williams (It Comes at Night’s Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to have a perfect life—he’s popular, good-looking, and a star athlete. He’s the kind of guy who can play a flawless tune on the piano but brush it off like a party trick. He’s got a beautiful girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), who loves him, and he loves her. He loves his family too, because they joke and laugh and push him to do his best. Everyone is beautiful and rich. Everything is bright and fast and dizzying. Drew Daniels’ breakneck cinematography works in perfect tandem with the Shults’ electric style and deep bubbling soundtrack to establish an almost violent high you know won’t last.
As expected, Shults increasingly reveals more cracks in the Williams’ façade, partially by turning innocuous things like hand calluses and Kanye West music into powerful symbols. Tyler’s story becomes a poignant examination of black masculinity and the pressure to be exceptional. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown, current reigning king of drama) sternly tells him. Under the command of his wrestling coach in the locker room, Tyler chants, “I cannot be taken down, I am a new machine.” Everywhere he looks, someone is telling Tyler to stifle his humanity for the sake of black excellence. His story spirals further and further down, and to be honest, it’s total agony. Eventually, there’s a major plot twist.
At this point, I wasn’t sure I liked where Waves was headed in the wider context of the coming-of-age genre. Sure, lots of coming-of-age tales build to a tragic event that violently snaps them out of childhood; if you did your required reading in school (A Separate Peace, The Outsiders, etc.), you already know that. But recently it seems like every indie coming-of-age film considers such an event to be the only acceptable avenue for boys’ emotional development, with even Waves’ Harmony Korine cameo feeling like a nod to this trope (although his films often opt for nonstop trauma rather than a singular moment). Sometimes I think movies do this just to be taken more seriously. Other times, films like this—think Mid90s, Super Dark Times, Sleeping Giant—might just be primarily concerned with boys’ first encounters with death, akin to Stand by Me. It’s perfectly valid… but it just gets old.
However, Waves suddenly shifts its focus onto Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). Although it feels great to finally let go of our armrests, this change is so much more than just a welcome relief from the nonstop anxiety and dread of Tyler’s storyline. Shults surprises us by turning Tyler’s drastic plot point into the catalyst for Emily’s bildungsroman, and we realize that Waves is not all about Tyler, or how toxic masculinity affects men and boys. Finally, here is a film about how toxic masculinity affects girls and women.
This is where we might start thinking about the film’s title Waves as an allusion to the ripple effect of toxic behavior. It’s also where we realize that Shults has just tricked us. We’ve pushed Emily and her mother Catherine (Hamilton‘s Renée Elise Goldsberry) to the periphery just as Ronald and Tyler did and now, all of a sudden, we remember they were there the whole time. They were previously framed to listen, to comfort, to calm, and often to be ignored. Now we remember that the first image in the film is of Emily riding her bike down a road; Waves may be more her movie than anyone else’s.
Now that the film has passed the mic to Emily and Catherine, it can more fully observe how the entire Williams family copes with their trauma and explore themes of love, guilt, and forgiveness. It also lets Lucas Hedges shine as Emily’s adorably awkward love interest, Luke, who describes manatees as “like if a cow and an elephant had a baby in the water.” I’m a little worried about that cellar A24 seems have Hedges locked up in, but at least he’ll never be out of work.
At its close, Waves leaves itself somewhat unresolved. None of the Williams have thoroughly worked through their emotions about the mid-movie plot twist. To say the least, they all have a lot of talking to do. But that is the beauty of the film and its title. Coming-of-age doesn’t happen all at once—it happens in waves.
Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars
While Waves feels disjointed and long, this structural abnormality allows the film to critique its cinematic predecessors in such an interesting way. However, combined with all the tragedy, it also verges on seeking melodrama for melodrama’s sake. Regardless, Shults has again proved himself the master of turning familial drama into a near-supernatural experience, heightening both the beauty and terror of our everyday lives. If you ignored my pleas and read this without seeing Waves, please go see it, especially for Taylor Russell. The whole cast is unbelievable, but for her, this is the start of something big.