Waves Review: Family Drama Propped Up By Cinematic Parlor Tricks

Waves Photo: A24

Trey Edward Shults trots out every filmmaking trick in the book to spruce up an overly-novelistic family drama.

A car rides across the interstate of the southern Florida coast. “FloriDada” by Animal Collective blares, the camera sits on the car’s center console, and it rotates round and round. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is driving as his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), bleeds candy-colored euphoria across the screen. It rotates, he’s driving, it rotates, her legs are in his lap, it rotates, his hands are slipping from the wheel, it rotates, and everything is fine. Cut to a Tame Impala-set montage.

Then cut to Tyler at a diner with his little sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), dad (Sterling K. Brown), and stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the camera between each pair’s shoulders. We’re not in the middle of anything, just between it all on the outside looking in. Each decision points to subjective cinema without interrogating whom we’re meant to empathize with, and the ensuing tricks of the trade—over-editing, aspect ratio shifts, needle drops galore—say the most. The hardships to come are the corpse. The parlor tricks are the hot air to fill it up. 

So the question here is, What is there to know about this all-American family? Not too much. Trey Edward Shults—who pulled off Krisha and It Comes at Night because he leaned into their simplicity—chomps at the bit here to tell a universal (and colorblind!) tale about tragedy and family. In fact, he wants it so badly that he simplifies the pain and catharsis to clichés and naïveté. But Waves is really two movies. The first is toe-curlingly desperate to prove itself and more than a little risible, and while the second half is perfectly fine, it’s left to wither away.

The entire experience, though, is one where someone is something until they aren’t. Tyler is a high school wrestler whose shoulder injury is so bad that he can’t do the only thing he’s ever done. He’s just trying to keep it together, and he will until he won’t. The same goes for Alexis, who’s fretting about being weeks late for her period. Whether or not they’ll have a baby is just the first of many pit stopsWaves takes on its journey of human suffering, and while that should be open for success, it’s too transparent to work.

Well, narratively, at least. The rest first comes off as opaque but soon shows itself as under-realized: from Tyler to Alexis to Emily, the film posits its characters as moral compasses just trying to get through whatever tsunami is washing over them. So what’s the issue here? How about the fact that they have no real moral compass, and the movie, taking little more than a basic set of human ethics, is so stringent in that its character growth feels like a switch to be flipped.

Shults’s pacing is too impatient to establish or map the dynamics. The starting points are too disconnected for most fallouts ever register. All the while, the outside world ducks beneath their every action to near-solipsistic magnitudes, largely in the first half. It prides itself on realism while feeling oddly sanitized, clueless to how its colorblind storytelling houses stereotypes and fails to paint a world that informs—or even instigates—their worldviews.

We’re not in the middle of anything, just between it all on the outside looking in.

Shults includes a brief reference to how the family has to work “ten times as hard” to succeed because they’re black, but beyond that, it plays as ignorant to the world around them. Willfully ignorant, even. The ticking time bomb of a black man, the pregnant Latina teenager, and a plain-at-best family life form the initial stasis here. The tropes pile on; a larger context fails to coalesce. With its dabbling of themes and unspooling number of characters later on, Waves starts to feel like a novel at its core that was immediately forced onto the screen.

But for how overwrought the first half can be, there comes a tad of reprieve in the second. Different characters get the spotlight and the performances, namely those of Russell and Brown, excavate some truth to what often plays like a what’s-what of sob stories. It’s also here that Shults actually goes all in for subjective filmmaking, blending POV shots and dissolves and allowing performances to get quieter.

But did Shults have to trudge through over an hour of misery porn to get to something that felt real? No, and that’s what solidifies Waves as wildly out of its depth and too tepid to plumb the reality of human emotions. Whereas the best all-you-can-eat indie dramas of The Now are traceable in their DNA—from now to the ‘90s scene, from the ‘90s to the ‘60s French New Wave, and so on—it’s as if Shults directly copied the likes of Clark, Korine, and Arnold. He condensed all the grandiosity without realizing its origin and ended up with something ankle-deep.

Waves washes up on the shore and into theaters November 22nd.

Waves Trailer:

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