Grackles review Waves

Directed by Trey Edward Shults

Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli 

Waves is the third film by writer/director Trey Edward Shults. Shults, a young filmmaker from Texas, burst on the scene with the South by Southwest debut of his film Krisha, a domestic drama shot entirely on location at Shults’s parents’ house, consisting of a cast that primarily consisted of Shults’s family. It is unusual that a film shot under these constraints catapults a director to the types of opportunities Shults received after A24 acquired the film. This is a testament to the talents of Shults and perhaps the cache and support A24 can lend to a young filmmaker. He followed up with the psychological thriller It Comes at Night, before returning to a more domestic mode with Waves.

Waves begins by showing us the world of Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harris, Jr.), a popular high school wrestler, in his senior year—that time when the simplicity of childhood begins to come to an end. Tyler lives in the photogenic backdrop of South Florida, in a comfortably affluent suburb. As Tyler’s world becomes more complicated, when athletic dreams are curtailed by the realities of injury and personal relationships become tumultuous as the result of an unplanned pregnancy, the film culminates in an event that will change the Williams family forever. After this event, the story becomes more about his sister (Taylor Russell), her relationship with their father (Sterling K. Brown) and stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and about how families stay families—or don’t.

Scott Ray: From the first frames of Waves, Shults and his longtime cinematographer Drew Daniels show us a version of South Florida that almost seems a dream. The bright sunshine, the tropical plants, and the beauty of the ocean always on the periphery give the film an Edenic quality that eventually begins to sink away as the realities of Tyler’s life intrude. I found some of these atmospheric moments throughout the film to be the most beautiful images on screen in film in 2019. There are probably film-goers who lose their patience with Shults as he revels in the natural or human beauty of his subjects through extended shots more about mood than plot, but I found it to be endearingly hopeful. These extended imagistic moments were moments of relief in the narrative, or moments that showed how one might get through the difficult drudgery or sudden violence of the world. One of my favorite sequences was an illicit substance enhanced lover’s frolic on a streetlight-lit suburban golf course, as lens flares spiraled through sputtering water sprinklers. There was another, seemingly Moonlight inspired sequence where Tyler and his girlfriend comforted each other in chest deep water as a storm rolled in from out in the Atlantic, her fluorescent fingernails almost glowing in the dark.

Shults’s first film Krisha, often featured obtrusive audio editing techniques to relay to the audience the sense of anxiety felt by its protagonist. Shults’s direction in Waves was equally pushed to the forefront. He frequently used a technique where the camera panned completely 360 from a fixed point, showing the different characters in a scene and the world around them. Charlie, what did you think of the more noticeable directing choices Shults made?

Charlie Riccardelli: It wasn’t the choices I noticed so much as the way Shults utilizes them into a collage of emotions. Shults constructs his film like a Terrence Malick movie with more of a contemporary, plot-driven bent. Waves contains little in the way of exposition, but the director maximizes the way each shot takes us further into the lives of our characters. On the surface, Tyler looks emblematic of a teen whose life has reaped nothing but the best, but we come to learn how precarious his existence is, or at least he’s made to see it from his well-intentioned but domineering father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) whose pressures his son so much to succeed that the boy sees any fault in himself as an unforgivable failure.

Speaking of one element of the filmmaking, Shults plays around with aspect ratios throughout the movie. Early in Tyler’s life, his world is framed by wide vistas that contain endless possibilities. However, once his life begins to crumble around him, the framing shrinks until a crucial moment where his world is constricted by the square dimensions of a 1.33 aspect ratio that could make the audience hyperventilate with claustrophobia.

SR: I definitely thought the extended contemplative scenes of the characters interacting and enjoying nature owed a debt to Malick’s The Tree of Life, among other films of his. At the same time, Shults does make some stabs at plotting. The film feels to me a little unsure of what it is. At times Waves feels like a mood piece, juxtaposing the beauty of South Florida with the hard realities of losing one’s innocence in the suburbs without much overt editorializing. The film glides through several relevant topics without seeming to settle on any one theme. We understand that part of Ronald’s overbearing parenting stems from the way young black men are treated in America. Tyler’s mother died from an overdose, we learn in passing. Tyler begins to abuse opioids after a wrestling injury. The difficulties of family dynamics in and after tragedy. Still, a clear picture of Tyler’s descent isn’t really offered and doesn’t seem to be the point.

While I think this is an attempt at a kind of cinema verite, at times the plotting can seem oblique. I don’t want the film to come down in judgement of Tyler or his father, but perhaps I could have some more information about factors that led Tyler’s tragic trajectory. There was something of this type of storytelling in Shults’s previous film, It Comes at Night. The film starts in media res, in a similar way to Waves. Sometimes I feel like we stay in media res all the way through Shults’s films.

CR: Since you referenced The Tree of Life and we’re dancing around Malick, I appreciated how this film similarly didn’t feel the need to ground the viewer in many specifics, instead letting the story crash over us like, well, waves. At times I thought of the film as a version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night stripped of most of the dialogue. We don’t need to know more about Tyler’s mother or stepmother, or of their backstory that led Tyler to this place in his life. You mentioned the black perspective as well, and what I enjoyed about the film is that we can read into the film with that cultural perspective, but apart from one scene where Tyler has a racial epithet yelled at him, it never becomes overt. Did Shults, a white filmmaker, do that on purpose to avoid in accusations of appropriation?

We’re mostly talking about Tyler, but, without spoiling, the film pivots to his sister Emily in the second hour. She becomes the emotional center of the film because she has more or less been a witness to the chaos swirling around her. Her father has neglected her in favor of his son. She’s more quiet and reserved, and bitter that she is a casualty of a tragic event even though she had nothing to do with it. Emily if filled with a different anger than her brother, but what makes her different is her eventually fill it with the capacity for love thanks to a new boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) and the faith that the family has. The movie desperately needs that catharsis.

SR: You’re right that I’m doing a disservice focusing on Tyler when Emily’s section of the film contained just as many of its own emotionally poignant and visually transfixing moments, but it is a little disorienting how the film sort of completely shifts about an hour and fifteen minutes in. We spend almost as much time focused on Emily as we do on Tyler, but it still feels like Tyler’s film to me, even as the movie was marketed as a family drama. It is about the way this family moves through a tragic event, but its focus is so intent on Tyler at the beginning that I found it disorienting when he mostly leaves the narrative.

In all of Shults’s films there is a dedication to realism that I think can get in the way of the film’s narrative. In Shults’s desire to depict the way a family might deal with a tragic event in an organic way, the momentum of the film sputters. For me, the two halves of the film play like their own stories. This is not to say this isn’t a way to make a movie. The Place Beyond the Pines comes to mind—it was basically three loosely connected films. However, in that case, I preferred the first film as well. Perhaps it’s because that’s what the film has taught me to expect. Maybe it’s my own shortcoming. Nevertheless, there is some real beauty in this film. I’d like to see what Shults could do with a more condensed story. Maybe that’s not what interests him.

Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review, Cold Mountain Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.

Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.