Waves review – hyper-stylish family drama fails to make a splash

Trey Edward Shults’ third film squanders its potential with an uneven narrative split into two distinct halves

With its showy aesthetics and hot-right-now writer-director, Trey Edward Shults’s third film has felt for a while like one of those rarefied indie gems that has been pre-ordained as an instant great. Thanks to its unique stylistic sensibility and an of-the-moment plot that touches on toxic masculinity, body autonomy, and the American opioid epidemic, greatness was certainly in reach. But a series of ridiculous directorial choices, as well as a structure that leaves the second half devoid of drama, keeps Waves from achieving its potential.

The story revolves around a suburban Florida family and the devastating ripple effects caused by the overbearing parenting style of clan patriarch Ronald (Sterling K Brown). He demands constant perfection from his high-school senior son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), an obsession that puts unbearable pressure on Tyler and leads Ronald to neglect his daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) and wife Catharine (Renee Elise Goldsberry). This pressure ultimately crushes Tyler, who ends up stealing addictive painkillers to keep an agonising shoulder injury secret from his dad, culminating in disastrous physical damage that profoundly alters him for the worse.

Shults dedicates the film’s first half pretty much exclusively to Tyler’s point of view, and it makes for a dizzying introduction to this world. Yet Waves is wildly over-directed, from its hyper-mobile camera to some aggressively loud needle drops. Though Shult’s technique of persistent 360 degree camera movement can create compellingly immersive drama in scenes of fights or drunken partying, it is just as often distracting, bordering on nauseating, especially during the in-car sing-a-longs that make up so many of Tyler’s social interactions. The music is just as unsubtle: Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s pounding score does the film no favours, whilst the use of licensed tracks alternates between thrilling and laughable (a scene of Tyler smashing up his room is bookended by the lyrics “I can’t handle my emotions”). 

Flaws aside, it’s still hard to turn your eyes away from Waves’s first half. Had it finished there, the film might have been remembered as a deeply flawed but worthwhile experiment. Unfortunately, Shults switches the focus to sister Emily for the film’s second half and the strange, trance-like grip is broken, serving only to alert you to the script’s more glaring flaws. Where there was urgency in Tyler’s story, the time frame of Emily’s plot is foggy at best, most of it spent on a low stakes road trip that doesn’t quite earn its emotional beats. Waves also has a huge problem with its women, often treating them as shrill, impossible shrews who exist only to exacerbate the struggles of the men. Even when the focus is on Emily, this issue persists, resulting in a sour, unpleasant worldview that undermines the statements that Waves tries to make about toxic masculinity and how it’s passed on from generation to generation.

In amongst all this, the performances get rather lost. Harrison Jr. is a very fine young actor, and he’s effectively intense and tragic as Tyler’s carefully constructed life starts slipping away. But he played a lot of these notes with more variety and a greater sense of fun in Julius Onah’s race relations drama Luce and the performance here suffers by comparison. Much like its tortured lead character, Waves simply winds up wasting a whole world of potential.

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