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 wor