Zach Gilbert’s review published on Letterboxd:
This is a tough one.
I’ve been intrigued by Waves ever since Trey Edward Shults’ third film was announced, but when those raves came out of Telluride... well, to quote Calvin Candie, “You had my curiosity, but now you have my attention.”
To put it simply, I’ve been voraciously devouring every inch of this film’s ad campaign, and the radiantly realized trailers (spectacularly set to Frank Ocean’s “Godspeed”) sent my anticipation through the roof. After seeing (and loving) this year’s Luce, my admiration had grown immensely for Kelvin Harrison Jr., and I was thrilled that he was leading this film alongside actors like Sterling K. Brown and Lucas Hedges, whom I already adored. Throw in a respected director and a score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, and I’d figured I was settling in for a masterpiece. Now, I was definitely aware of a few mixed reviews, but I easily dismissed those detractors and went into this film high off its initial festival hype.
For its first half, Waves is one of the best films - if not the best film - of 2019. From the moment Shults starts spinning his camera to capture Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Tyler and Alexa Demie’s Alexis on a joyride down the freeway, the film bursts with electrifying energy and a pulsating pace that never lets up for the next hour. His vibrant vision is at the forefront of every scene, coinciding with Drew Daniels’s captivating cinematography to fully envelop us in the illuminating yet intense atmosphere that these adolescents occupy. Shults’ mixes sight with sound to stupefying effect, combining Reznor & Ross’s suspenseful score with a truly stellar soundtrack that expertly accentuates all the actions taking place onscreen. Likewise, Shults’ entire ensemble is locked and loaded, with absolutely everyone pulling their weight. The aforementioned Harrison Jr. is front-and-center, and he is utterly spellbinding as the tense Tyler, a wrestling star who suffers a debilitating injury and soon runs into other roadblocks as well that send his previously “perfect” life crumbling all while he continually endures the suffocating pressure of his domineering father, Ronald (played by a steely Sterling K. Brown, whose ice-cold judgmental glares send shivers down your spine). Renée Elise Goldsberry is effortlessly enchanting as Tyler’s sincere stepmother, while Taylor Russell’s saintly soul leaves a stark impression, and Alexa Demie’s tumultuous chemistry with Harrison gives the central storyline a strong amount of dramatic heft.
When Waves nears its midpoint, the mounting tension reaches its head, and I was relentlessly riveted. Without spoilers, I was quite literally unflinchingly enthralled by everything unfolding onscreen, and I had no idea what Shults had in store for me for the remaining hour, but I couldn’t wait to find out.
And yet, looking back, I feel like the exciting intensity set up by the propulsive first act just dropped off a cliff completely.
Make no mistake, the second half of Waves isn’t necessarily “bad” by any means. For one, it features a subtle yet sweetnatured supporting performance from Taylor Russell, whose character Emily is now allowed to take center stage and reveal secret struggles that were brewing beneath the surface of her family. Russell is a ravishing presence, but compared to the clockwork-esque plot precision of the first half, she’s unfairly burdened by having to anchor a rather aimless second half that feels more like a loose connection of music videos than a logical progression of prior narrative strands.
Shults’ staggering direction is still apparent, as is Daniels’ distinctive cinematography, but rather than serving as a complement to the story, they sadly overwhelm the script this time around, leaving little time for compelling character development or thematic resonance. Sure, we get bits and pieces on how the midpoint’s tragedy has affected the Williams family (including a devastating discussion between Goldsberry and Brown and a harrowing heart-to-heart between Russell and Brown), but the second half of Waves suffers from deviating too far from these aftershocks and instead focusing almost solely on Emily’s surprisingly fast-paced and out-of-the-blue romance with Lucas Hedges’ Luke, which seems to come out of nowhere and detract from everything that made this film’s story special in the first place. Many have said this, but it’s true - Waves truly feels like two separate movies stitched together with only the barest connective tissue. It’s quite apparent that various subplots have been edited down significantly (something I’m even more aware of given my recent familiarity with some of this film’s script’s earliest drafts), and these cuts undermine the film’s momentum and prevent it from reaching a natural and rewarding conclusion, leaving viewers unfulfilled in the long run.
Waves is a frustrating film. For the first hour and 15 minutes, I was convinced I was probably watching one of my top 5 favorites of the entire year, and I couldn’t believe I still had an hour left of this near masterwork. Yet, by the end, I found myself feeling quite empty and emotionally stagnant. While this is a technically beautiful experience through and through, its story structure is fundamentally flawed, and that prevents it from ever fully achieving the cinematic transcendence it so desires.