Arts movie review

Submerged into the depths of heartache

‘Waves’ explores love and pain through a spectacularly artistic and emotional lens

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Kelvin Harrison Jr. stars in A24's latest release, 'Waves.'

Directed by Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay by Trey Edward Shults
Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Sterling Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry
Rated R, Now Playing

The film Waves stays true to its name: it washes over its audiences and characters with currents of emotion and sensation, challenging and overcoming the constraints of the medium. What is captured in this film is beyond storytelling. Aural and visual senses are saturated in artistic ways, abstractly synthesizing and evoking emotions related to love, pain, and forgiveness. The story centers on the life-altering events of an African-American family in suburban Florida. Tyler Williams, or Ty (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), is a high-schooler whose life consists mainly of wrestling and spending time with his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). He lives in a large, beautiful home with his father (Sterling Brown), stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and fellow high-school sister Emily (Taylor Russell). The film explores the downward spiral of Ty’s life as he deals with the pressures of wrestling, family, and his relationship with Alexis. 

The film touches upon so many aspects of Ty and his family’s lives that the sense of actual time passing is lost, absorbing the audience into Ty’s world. Part of this effect is achieved with the use of quick shots to give a sense of constant movement. This combination of editing and videography helps the film establish the rhythms of Ty’s life, especially towards the beginning of the movie, fluidly transitioning between him doing homework at his desk, working out, spending time with Alexis, and partying. The panning of the camera creates smooth connections between these disjointed scenes. In this way, the viewer is relentlessly swung in and out of different scenes, producing a surprisingly effective whirlwind tour that establishes a feeling of investment in the main characters. The visual style throughout the movie continues to be playful and creative, framing faces and scenes with a distinct artistic touch. 

Cinematographer Drew Daniels’s craftsmanship is apparent in his experimentation with color and visual effects. Grainy blurs of color and ombre gradients serve as transitions and emblems of lingering emotions. Moods are evoked by specific harmonies of color: moments like when Alexis and Ty spend time by the ocean are portrayed in pale purple and blue, creating a dreamy feeling of love. Edgier scenes, often during the night and concerning Ty’s drinking and consumption of painkillers, are characterized by low red glows in the surrounding darkness. Creating engulfing visual sensations, Daniels clearly draws from the surrealist, saturated style of his work on TV show Euphoria, released earlier this year. 

Adding to the borderline overwhelming onset of stimuli is the film’s use of music. Scenes are almost always drenched in a dreamy, urban, youthful soundtrack that shapes much of the emotional force and pacing of the film. The lyrics and melodies of the songs tell part of the story, providing the same narrative feeling you might experience when listening to a playlist curated for a specific mood. During intense moments like Ty’s tirades of anger, the blaring soundtrack amplifies the pressure to the point of feeling almost suffocating. Ty’s life is followed by hype themes from Kanye that contrast with calmer, moody Frank Ocean, which both differ from the funky pop sounds of Animal Collective that mark out the distinct personality of his sister, Emily. It is incredible to think about the effort it took to structure and produce the soundtrack for this movie, which is undeniably prominent and likely one of the most impactful soundtracks of this year. 

The careful crafting of the film’s audiovisual sensations works to expand on the feelings associated with family and love. Rather than presenting a concrete idea or resolution of the issues that Ty and his family face, the exploration of these concepts is shaped by the scenes’ effects on the audience: a moment of breathlessness or a tightening of the chest. The film especially hits on the complex heartache inherent to family dynamics. Ty’s personal struggles with excellence in wrestling and moral character come from his hardworking father, who insists that they “are not afforded the luxury of being average." As Ty is pushed to succeed, we see him falling off in other directions that his parents are unaware of and thus helpless to control. In fact, the film is completely untraditional and unafraid of a chaotic, unpredictable narrative progression that continuously shocks and sometimes confuses the viewer. 

However, this boldness is precisely what allows the story and film to take a life of their own, one that is stunningly insightful to the essence of real life. Even though the plot is not completely relatable (hopefully) to most people’s experiences, the characters are brought to life by the intricacy of the film’s writing, hitting on small details of just day-to-day existence that will especially hit home for the current young generation. The actors melt perfectly into these molds, with Harrison’s performance perfectly showing the mad descent of Ty closing off and living in his own world. The other characters are not given a larger presence until later in the film, but even before then, Brown’s acting humanizes Ty’s otherwise strict and seemingly unforgiving father, particularly his quietly pained expressions that give a face to the emotional distress of parenting. 

Stripping away its focus on Ty, the film uses its turning point to weave in the narratives of the people who were quietly in the background of Ty’s life. In the second half of the film, when the other characters, especially Emily, are spotlighted, the repressed anguish of the now fragile family rushes to the surface and gives a painfully intimate look at the state of love being challenged. Most of this struggle occurs under the surface — Emily and her parents deal with their emotions quietly. The film itself moves away from its earlier bombardment of stimuli to create a more reserved and deceptively calm mood. The actors skillfully capture the difficulty of finding forgiveness by mastering a quiet but strained energy that feels so personal and heartbreaking. The theme of reconciliation emerges in unexpected and tear-jerking ways, especially with a vulnerable dialogue between Emily and her father. Their raw and honest conversation is clearly difficult for them to carry on, with pauses filled with too much pain to speak, but ultimately so necessary and healing. 

Through this interaction as well as other subplots, the idea of being caught up in one’s own world and ultimately forgetting to be family is impactful, especially in the aftermath of the first half of the film’s intense visual and sensory reinforcement of this concept. Providing the space for the characters and audience to really sit with feelings of regret, confusion, and grief, the second half of the film does not seek to tie up loose ends but rather to simply acknowledge them. Every aspect of the film is truly stunning in the way that it captures humanity in both its abstract and real forms. Waves, boldly overflowing with emotion and artistic flare, is unforgettable and impossible to look away from.