Waves ★★★★

Minor spoilers throughout most of this review. Major spoilers are seen mostly down at the bottom, but there will be a clear warning when they do arrive.

Waves is one of the strongest movies of 2019 and also one of its most controversial, being heavily divisive upon its debut at Telluride Film Festival and only becoming more so as time went by and the film released to wider audiences. A quick look at the more popular reviews on this site will give you two very clear crowds: the one standing heavily against it, calling a hamfisted, message-less, and self-indulgent mess of an effort on Trey Edward Shults' part, and the crowd standing heavily for it, which ranges from people calling it a flawed yet respectable and ambitious film to people calling it a masterpiece and a ridiculously strong movie about forgiveness. As for me... the rating above should give you a fair idea as to where I stand.

This is mostly going to be a very long defense of Waves. I will piss people off by doing this and I will also probably get people to agree. This movie is ambitious and flawed, but the overall experience is so fantastic and jarring that I find it very hard to at least not admire what it's going for.

The main thing this film has going for it in terms of story is its structure - two clean halves with two different perspectives and two very big differences in tone. The first half mostly focuses on Tyler Williams and his wrestling career, depicting how he's shaped by his father Ronald's relentless push for him to be better, how an injury shapes his future, how his relationship with his girlfriend Alexis deteriorates as a result, and how his over-ambition takes him to an operatic and tragic fall as he does irresponsible and damaging things to both himself and everyone around him.

For the most part, the first part is violent, stimulating, and frenetic. Fluid changes in camera movements and angles especially in the wrestling scenes as well a handful of tracking shots and 360 shots give off a sense of constant movement and energy reminiscent of a Terrence Malick film; hardly a coincidence, since Shults has had experience working on some of Malick's films. Hardly anything is static, hardly anything is ever really stable - these kinds of shots are constantly recurring throughout the first half, giving it a great sense of consistency. The sense of controlled chaos in the louder, more unhinged scenes is something that Shults has always been relatively good at, with just how on-point it's pulled off in his family-drama debut feature, Krisha, as well as the final few moments of his post-apocalyptic sophomore entry, It Comes At Night.

Relatively meaningful changes in aspect ratio are also a director trademark; It Comes At Night uses wider aspect ratios such as 2.75:1 and 3:1 to represent nightmares, and Waves utilizes them to give off a growing sense of despair turning quickly into tunnel-vision. Krisha uses narrower aspect ratios such as 4:3 to represent a sense of claustrophobia with the "walls" and the circumstances closing in around the main character (another film that uses stuff like this to this effect is Xavier Dolan's "Mommy", with two aspect ratios being used; a square 1:1 and the much fuller 16:9); Waves uses this to great effect immediately after the first half ends and onward for a good portion of the second half, showing that the pivotal incident of the film not only affects him but also the rest of his family.

The primary performances at play here are Sterling K. Brown and Kelvin Harrison Jr., both of whom play off of each other extremely well. Harrison is the main player in this half - his slow transition from being in the high of his life, to dejection and disappointment once the first signs of a worsening situation hit, to resentment and bitterness as he violently revolts against his circumstances, is pulled off considerably well.

The second half is the considerably calmer and more forgiving half of the movie; it both comes as a direct contrast to the first half, yet at the same time, is the perfect complement to it. Now taking on the POV of Emily, Tyler's sister, this time around, the second half touches on the aftermath of the events of the first half and how an way to forgiveness starts to become clearer once Emily starts a relationship with Luke, one of Tyler's teammates, who must find a way to cope with the illness of his abusive father. The transition from the first half to the second half is noticeable but at the same time, it's pretty seamless; going from being shaken up by the end of the first half to easing into a calmer atmosphere comes rather naturally and it doesn't feel at all forced.

The main thing to recognize about the second half of the film is that everything is reversed from the first half. The constantly moving energy of the first half is replaced by a more static, calmer camera, and if there is any movement, it's slow or reincorporates the parts of the first half before shit went down. The order of the aspect ratio changes is (mostly) reversed. The dynamics and relationships of characters are noticeably reversed, leading to...


One of the main things that bonds the two halves of this film together is their separate depictions of both toxic masculinity and the effects of relationships. In the first half, it's the endless drive to seize the day, to be better, to not be second place, and to push yourself to your absolute limit, that gets instilled in Tyler by both his surroundings and also Ronald, but once his injury permanently ends his career, all of this goes right down the drain. Tyler's conflict with Alexis over her pregnancy doesn't help this at all and only fuels his anger more than Ronald ever could; the only person he wants to legitimately rely on is now turning away from him and conflicting with him in a way he never saw coming over an issue that is too big for him to handle. Their conflict and their growing animosity towards each other, fueled by the end of Tyler's wrestling career and his pent-up hatred for his father, ends in Tyler killing Alexis, leading to life in prison for him for second-degree murder.

On the other hand, the second half takes both of these things and re-contextualizes them. When it comes to the father-son dynamic, Luke's father is a considerably worse person than anything Ronald could ever be - he was an alcoholic and was explicitly abusive, with Luke's mother dying of an overdose as well. Despite this, an active attempt is made at forgiveness; Luke's father, who now has a terminal illness, seems evidently sorry for what he's done, and lives longer than anticipated once Luke visits and makes an attempt to console him. In terms of the relationship, Luke and Emily are consciously respectful of each other and the things they're going through - instead of fighting each other over how to solve a certain problem, both of them find a way to work through it together. Emily uses this experience to forgive her own father as well as Tyler for causing the unimaginable fallout and pain that their family's gone through, and the ending shows a sense of hope that things will end up at least becoming just a bit better. The outcome of all of this is a story that depicts forgiveness as something that's hard, almost impossible, to navigate alone; it's something that comes as a byproduct of people coming together, finding common ground in their injuries, and mustering the strength to accept the people who've wronged you in the past.


In terms of more minor aspects of the film, I wasn't exactly bothered by the needle drops all that badly, although that's mostly a result of my extremely limited exposure to music from people like Kanye, Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, etc. The lyrics in certain songs do line up in places but it's not really as subtle as I'd like it to be.

The acting on an overall basis ranges from average to strong - Taylor Russell in particular has a real talent and she SHINES in the second act, balancing all sorts of emotions in various scenes really, really well; I can't wait to see her in other things. For that matter, it's hard to really pinpoint a performance that I explicitly disliked or hated, not even from Lucas fucking Hedges, who I agree has a really punchable face and doesn't have the strongest track record.

Waves is an ambitious effort from one of my favorite working directors - Shults has proved himself time and time again, and it's obvious how much of a personal place this comes from. I'm able to understand some of the criticisms towards this movie - there are scenes where the execution's a bit cornier than it usually is - and I can see why a handful of people don't really like Shults' line of work all that much, but I'll be damned if this wasn't at the very least respectable in some ways. See it if you'd like - I'd very heavily recommend this to a lot of people.


James liked this review