Movie Review: ‘Waves’

Director: Trey Edward Shults

Cast: Kelvin Harrison, Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, René2 Elise Goldsberry, Alexa Demie

Plot: We follow a brief window in the lives of siblings Tyler and Emily. We follow Tyler as his life falls apart after a series of obstacles and then Emily as she picks up the pieces.

Review: This was a strange movie to see with no idea what to expect. No synopsis, no trailer…just a simple poster design and a title. Waves comes to us from Trey Edward Shults, a new director who previously made It Comes at Night, a movie that is very well regarded and has been sitting in my ‘to-do’ pile for far too long. Sitting through the first half of the movie was a very different experience to watching the second half.

You may not know this, but I teach film in a high school when I’m not passing myself off as a critic. After a short time in that field you start to see some patterns. If you ask teenagers to make an artistic film, one with an emotional punch, they tend to make the same thing. It’s about a teen who starts using drugs/suffers depression and then things go bad and it ends in suicide/ironic tragedy. The first part of this film felt a bit like watching one of those with a bit of money and experience under its belt. I’ve taught some very impressive film-makers who have left me absolutely floored by they’re creative works and been left feeling like a sham since they’re obviously better at this than me, but there’s a set of tropes I’ve seen a couple of times.

Let’s be clear: it’s a good movie. Shults clearly knows what he’s doing, and for every moment that feels like a student idea there’s another two that works. The colour grading is very good and the performances are amazing, but the constantly rotating camera is a drag. During the sequence where Tyler (Harrison) is the point of view character, things feel as though they’re moving too quickly to feel realistic and some of the choices border on tired. Everything gets washed out in red and slowed down during the drug taking scenes…it’s a bit on the nose.

When this story was wrapping up and I was mentally writing up this film as being competent but cliched, things got switched up. Initially I thought we were getting the third act from the point of view of Tyler’s sister, Emily (Russell) but it turned into another movie preluded by Tyler’s story. From the moment Tyler’s action see him separated from his family we begin following Emily as she attempts to reconcile what has happened with who she and her family is. The chance meeting with one of Tyler’s old peers gives her the opportunity to redefine her ideas of family, love and death.

This second part of the story was much more interesting, especially being less predictable than the first half. Emily’s story is prompted by Tyler’s but it is not defined by it. Taylor Russell is the highlight of the movie, and gives us a much more engaging character arc that is dealt with in a much more subtle manner. We don’t have the overbearing use of saturated colour, but the basic idea is still there. Some of the lighting used during a drug scene was straight up inspired, and I’m not quite sure how they captured some of the shots.

Sterling K. Brown is also excellent, but you knew that.

Waves is a very good movie. Shults is clearly a very good director, but I’m not yet convinced that he has a distinct voice. He’s certainly one to keep an eye on, and Waves is worth watching more for the second half.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN