Both The Night of the Hunter and Do the Right Thing feature incredible monologues about love and hate, how they both reside in the same person and the struggle to keep them both in check. Whenever one gets the upper hand, the other comes back to restore the delicate balance within us. Waves, Trey Edward Shults’ third and best film so far, could’ve easily featured this monologue. Shults tells the story of how the balance can go too far one way, how the same experiences can shift these in completely different ways for different people, and how both love and hate can also resonate in a larger family structure.
While Shults’ first two films – Krisha and It Comes at Night – were horror mood pieces, with building dread encompassing the family at the center, Waves ebbs and flows in and out of familiar fear, worry, and compassion. Shults’ film starts with a shot, completely unlike anything Shults has ever done, almost like Shults is making his own version of Moonlight, through the lens of Paul Thomas Anderson. The opening minutes of Waves arguably contains more cuts and camera movement than his previous two films combined. It’s not just a surprising and exciting way to begin his film, it also feels like a presentation of everything that Shults is capable of as a director. Even though this frantic intro only lasts a few minutes, the rest of Waves’ runtime makes it clear Shults is one of the most exciting filmmakers to watch from here on out.
Waves – also written by Shults – tells the story of two siblings dealing with young love, major responsibilities, and fear of the future in completely different ways. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a wrestler who has a shoulder injury that could raise his college career into question. Tyler is consistently pushed by his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), who wants him to reach his full potential. As Tyler’s worries about his life escalate, the world closes in – shown quite literally through Shults’ shifting of aspect ratios throughout the film. On the other hand is Emily (Taylor Russell), Tyler’s quiet sister who has always been in the background while the family dotes on Tyler and his potential. Naturally, Emily’s part of the story is much calmer, and while Tyler deals with his issues with increasing rage, Emily’s world opens up with the possibilities of new commitments in her life as she grows into an adult.
Harrison Jr. and Russell are both revelations here, presenting their struggle through their teenage years with such honesty and powerfully huge emotions. Tyler’s spiraling life begins as understandable decisions that go farther than he could’ve expected, and Harrison Jr. captures this with a tremendous amount of uncertainty and worry. Equally great is Russell as Emily, with a silent nervousness as she starts to open up in her life. But it’s Sterling K. Brown as Tyler and Emily’s father that stands above the rest. His performance shows both the intensity within Tyler and the reserved nature of Emily. Brown has already made a name for himself on television, but Waves turns him into an electric movie star.
But around Waves’ dynamic story is a production brimming with style. Cinematographer Drew Daniels – who has worked on all of Shults’ films and HBO’s Euphoria – mixes prime colors in intoxicating, startling ways. Something as basic as shifting between neon reds and blues, flashing over Tyler’s bleach-blonde hair is easy to get lost in, while Emily’s more natural story is given equal beauty in its simplicity. Waves also features one of the best soundtracks of the year, which comes off almost like a best of the 2000s Pitchfork list. Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, and multiple Animal Collective songs match the film’s tone perfectly, although some songs are a bit too on the nose. When Tyler’s love life hits a major snag, the Tyler, the Creator needle-drop of “IFHY” almost seems too obvious a choice. The same is true of one of Tyler’s biggest moments of anger, where a wasted Tyler feeling unstoppable in his hopelessness is soundtracked to Kanye West’s “I Am A God.”
Amongst all of these songs is an understated score by Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, which does fall back into the thumping doom they’re known for, their music here is much quieter and unassuming. Particularly inspired is the way they keep using Tame Impala’s “Be Above It” as a leitmotif in Tyler’s story, as the song almost beats back into his head as a reminder to rise above his current problems.
Waves is heartbreaking and overwhelming, an exquisite combination of terrific directing, breakout performances, and one of the year’s best soundtracks. Waves is a massive step forward for Shults, a deepening of his skills as both a writer and director, in a sprawling, gorgeous film that is one of the year’s best.