“He’s just a human being.”
As a modern, more secular approach to the dos and the dont’s listed in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, a common piece of scripture spoken at religious wedding ceremonies, Waves invigorates and energizes the epistle into a carefully structured story full of visual poetry, inner chaos and uncommon nuance. This film – a masterful juncture of past, present and future – is so full of flawed humanity and life’s struggles, and how these lessons of love can be preached to death, as well as how they resonate more deeply when they’re experienced first hand, sometimes to shattering effect and at others as an emotional epiphany. I haven’t seen a better, more heartbreaking yet hopeful film this year, nor do I imagine that I will. Waves is a towering tsunami of an achievement. Let it break you down, then build you up as the tides ebb back out, strengthening you to withstand the next eventual wave. That’s life, isn’t it?
Separated by two tonally and totally distinct halves, Waves tells one family’s story from the experience of different characters, ultimately ending where the film once began but from a new and self-effacing perspective. The initial weight of this world is borne by the uneven shoulders – one healthy and the other beyond repair – of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., so powerful here as well as in Luce), a high school senior with aspirations for collegiate wrestling. He’s relentlessly pushed by his old man Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), a demanding and pastoral father whose love is so intense it can often be misconstrued as hate; they’re both four letter words after all. Tyler has a healthier relationship with his stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), a mercurial romance with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and hardly speaks with his shy little sister Emily (Taylor Russell) sleeping on the other side of their Jack and Jill bathroom. There’s plenty of space to remain distant in their big, South Florida suburban home. These walls talk though.
Throughout the first portion of this sprawling diptych painting of young American life, with the grueling and relentless opening representing the Old Testament’s fire and fury to the latter chapter’s eventual New Testament rebirth, Waves covertly restricts the picture’s aspect ratio to present us with a smaller and smaller image. As he’s injured and his athletic career careens to an end, staggered by a life-altering choice from Alexis, and continued to be looked at as a soldier instead of a son by the household’s militant commander in chief, the size of the frame literally tightens on Tyler. He’s under a thumb, between vice grips, caught by a boa constrictor taking its time with its prey. That he goes down the path he does is of no real surprise, and how the film seals his side of the script with an explosive exhale – the suffocating box now a jolting 4:3 sequence – during a shocking act of violence is all the more impressive. We empathize with Tyler even if we don’t entirely understand him, a direct result of never getting to know his true self. Tragic indeed.
Conversely, the picture transitions with a softer color palette and less abrasiveness to the effortlessly kind Emily. She’s handling the drama of the first half with a stoic face and a secretly palpitating heart, while her embattled parents continue to grapple with trauma (once again using the physicality of wrestling as a metaphor in the psychological ways we slip and slide pain, go for the quick takedown, or face it head on). She’s all alone until she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges) through the school’s theater program. They take a shine to one another, enjoying an awkward first date and swiftly falling into the same initial patterns as Tyler’s own romance with Alexis. But this feels different because it is different. Emily and Luke have already been battered by their own respective waves, and together they’re able to withstand strong riptides. Waves is an exceptional and completely honest depiction of young love, in the ways it can go so wrong and the ways it can end up so right, and how the struggles of life can become more tolerable when you learn to love someone else more than yourself.
With a hyper specific, eclectic soundtrack and yet another moving score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, Waves essentially unfolds like a rhapsodic and rap-filled musical, using the lyrics of songs and their shifting melodies to tell this American odyssey as a clumsy and cute and catastrophic dance through suburbia. It almost feels like a Barry Jenkins gut punch filtered through the raw, unpredictable nature of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, allowing the cinematographer Drew Daniels to swirl the camera as hearts race and to calmly sit in the moment as the pulse finally finds its ease. But make no mistake about it…this is the work of writer and director Trey Edwards Schults, one of the best and most interesting filmmakers of the modern era. Schults makes introspective movies which span multiple genres and he challenges us to identify with flawed individuals, thus revealing our own faults and getting closer to the shared shortcomings we all have but so desperately try to hide in our carry-on luggage. He’s made three faultless feature films (the micro-budget Krisha and the psychological horror story It Comes at Night), and Waves is somehow his best to date. We’re looking at the burgeoning work of an uncompromising master of the cinematic medium.
Waves is a mere chapter in the lives of one family, alongside those who are undeniably damaged by or irrevocably changed along the way, and the film is like a book whose binding has been forever creased in the same spot. When you open the cover, it immediately goes to that moment. But there’s so much richness and anger before that point, and so much learned and taught compassion to eventually come later on. In one of the year’s most moving scenes, Emily (a miraculous breakthrough turn by Taylor Russell) goes to fish with her dad Ronald (featuring Sterling K. Brown delivering another god-like performance, dancing between stern and soft with omniscient conviction and an admitted ignorance). They both blame themselves for what’s happened. They both assure one another that’s not the case. They realize love requires dialogue, that their painful pasts will always be part of the present and the now. And that those factors don’t make them any less important or deserving of love. 2019’s best film is about forgiveness – towards oneself and to those who’ve done the hurting – and it’s a bumpy Baptism in the waters of reciprocity and empathy. Waves wants to wash over you. Take a swim in its overwhelming greatness: you’ll emerge better for having done so.
“All we have is now.”
Rating: 5 out of 5