‘Waves’ Review: A24’s Latest Floridian Dreamscape Crashes Down on You Then Carries You Back to Shore

A24’s latest triumph is an amalgamation of Frank Ocean melodies and stroboscopic visuals. Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves is a carefully crafted balancing act that is designed to feel like both a warm embrace and a punch to the gut. It is intelligently crafted and knows when to be heartfelt and when to be offensive. 

Shults is best known for It Comes At Night, an A24-produced psychological horror film. His work on Waves, however, is a career-changing endeavor. In creating such a familiar yet distinct suburban atmosphere, Shults seamlessly reinvents the family drama. It is evident that Shults is familiar with the horror genre as he is able to invoke fear during the most mundane of scenes. He forges an overarching atmosphere of tension and restlessness and his direction is nothing short of hypnotic. It grabs ahold of you and does not let go for 135 minutes straight. Mix this captivation with fluid camerawork and a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and you’ve got Waves

Waves chronicles a tight-knit family experiencing intense changes, while the family patriarch, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), attempts to navigate them. The story is divided into two parts; the first act focuses on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school senior undergoing immense pressure to excel. His time is divided amongst school, work, wrestling, his girlfriend, and training with his father. He hides his weaknesses and more often than not, succumbs to his stressors. 

After a series of shocking discoveries, Tyler turns to the occasional prescription pill to dull his nerves. From this moment forward, viewers are propelled into a rather apprehensive state. Tyler is focused, hardworking, and popular: the trifecta of a star athlete. He is invincible. This is what defines his character to the audience. He becomes more of an idea than a person. Shults plays on this frequently, bridging the gap of aesthetic distance until you stand face to face with a version of Tyler you never knew existed. 

The second act focuses on Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), as she attempts to cope with the fallout of the preceding events. Unlike her brother, she is quiet and does not draw attention to herself. Her words are euphonious and rare, but always well-calculated. She tends to keep to herself until she falls for the awkward, albeit charming Luke (Lucas Hedges). The use of romance in the film is a must-needed act of severance from all of the surrounding distress. It also allows viewers to delve into Emily, who has been perpetually eclipsed by her brother’s achievements. 

This tonal change has been subject to criticism, some arguing that the first act was so gripping and enticing that a romanticized second half was dull. This, however, could not be farther from the truth. This shift allows viewers to delve into the lives of two siblings with polar opposite personalities. It’s a fascinating look into the family’s dynamic; how fundamentally different two people raised in the same household can be. This is where Waves toys with your emotions; you are made to feel certain sensations in the beginning that you need not revisit later. You are supposed to experience Emily’s half of the film with simmering anxiety, just as she would. 

As always, Sterling K. Brown is exceptional; his presence is both commanding and nurturing, often leaving the audience welling up with tears. Kelvin Harrison Jr., who has worked alongside Shults before in It Comes At Night, is a force to be reckoned with as well. You can feel the sheer frustration behind every line, in a way that never feels excessive. Alexa Demie, best known for her recent work on Euphoria and Mid90s, stars as Tyler’s girlfriend, Alexis. She perfectly personifies the 2018 ‘it-girl’ and is a joy to watch. Taylor Russell’s performance is beautiful, heartfelt, and exudes warmth amidst the chaos; a warmth that is complemented by that of Lucas Hedges. The two create an awkward, yet passionate dynamic that feels like a genuine relationship (it’s really no surprise that they are a couple in real life).  

The most frequent critique of Waves is that it could be considered as teenaged pandering. It definitely alludes to the hyper-specific feeling of being young in the era of social media, but is that so bad? It’s an evocative work and to quip about the cultural details feels simplistic. Waves serves as a twenty-first-century character study — the stakes are high and the future feels far. The audience is supposed to feel the way Tyler and Emily do. Their wins and losses feel personal, our worlds collapse with theirs. Waves is a brilliantly made film that crashes down on you then carries you back to shore. My Festival season inevitably had to come to a close, and ending it on Waves felt like a dream.

★★★★½

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