This article was written exclusively for The Film Magazine by Pagan Carruthers.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenwriter: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie, Lucas Hedges, Bill Wise, David Garelik, Justin R. Chan
A24 is having a year.
Between The Farewell, Midsommar, The Lighthouse and the forthcoming Uncut Gems, the New York-based film company has established itself as not only the top indie studio in America, but one that is sure to garner plenty of praise this awards season.
And Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is another sublime achievement for its résumé.
As emotionally epic as it is invigorating, Waves tells the story of an upper middle class African American family, set against the subtropical humidity of South Florida. Kelvin Harrison Jr. (most recognisable from Shults’ sophomore sleeper hit It Comes At Night) plays Tyler, a popular high school athlete.
The first minutes of Waves show Tyler’s dizzying active schedule through orbiting cinematography, as the camera pans 360 degrees, soaring around him and his girlfriend Alexis (Euphoria‘s Alexa Demie) while music throbs. Tyler’s life appears to be a whirlwind of successes; he’s popular, a star athlete on the school team with a beautiful girlfriend and caring parents.
The opening scenes are an invigorating espresso shot for the viewer, a call to attention and a sensory overload. An undercurrent of foreboding builds as we learn Tyler is dealing with pressure from his father (This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown), tension in his relationship and a debilitating shoulder injury he’s using stolen Oxycodone to manage.
His life begins to brutally unravel in front of us to a soundtrack of Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, Kendrick Lamar and Animal Collective, culminating in one devastating event. To reveal anything further than this would be a spoiler – but in the manner of The Place Beyond the Pines the second half of Waves could be a completely different film.
Tyler’s sister Emily takes the helm of our focus, in an exceptional performance from Taylor Russell. A24 favourite Lucas Hedges is at his most endearing as Emily’s love interest, but it’s Russell’s understated and sensitive portrayal that will surely cement her as a breakthrough star and potential award candidate. Secondary only to Russell’s vulnerable execution is the visually adventurous camerawork throughout, dialled up with a saturated colour palette.
Heavily stylised in ways that will surely garner comparisons to HBO’s ‘Euphoria’, Waves must not be dismissed as lacking substance. Shults’ alarming screenwriting and directing talent at the age of 30 is on full display here, with scenes woven in dread as well as intimacy. The themes dealt with are heavy and heartbreaking; toxic masculinity, teen pregnancy, drug use, forgiveness and acceptance – it’s a multiplex storyline of emotion, and every parent’s nightmare. But at this film’s centre is a cautionary tale about lack of communication, a chilling reminder in an age of constant correspondence.
Written by Pagan Carruthers
Make sure to support Pagan in the following places: