Waves, the third film of Trey Edward Shults, is more evidence of his versatility, exploding onto the screen with authentic vibrations of ordinary life. Within the first five minutes, it’s clear that the camera is headed exactly where fate takes it. Set to the moody techno rhythm of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score, the camera swirls in an 360 degree arc around a car humming down the highway, with nothing but the Florida coastline and ocean ready to swallow it up. We can see that the driver and passenger, Trey and Alexis, are two kids in love — a pop song kind of love that will either be the best or worst thing that ever happened to them.
Why do these two people matter, the film asks as they move to the music and hang their hands out the window to push against the speeding onrush of air and their destiny. Waves, we call it. That force of moving through and against the a gust of current that swooshes past the windows of fast-moving cars. It is an apt metaphor and an action the director will repeat throughout the film, along with bodies immersed in water, to represent what the characters endure in this exquisite film about the relentless physics of human experience.
The film is about wrestling with feelings of hatred and resentment against good people who do terrible things. It is a cliché to say love heals everything, but indeed, here is a film that makes the case that love is really the only path forward out of darkness. Sterling K. Brown plays a father who does his best to keep his son (an excellent Kelvin Harrison Jr.) under the kind of vigilant pressure required to raise a black man through the land mines of middle-class America. Is he too tough or not tough enough?
Tyler, at 18, begins the film on a successful path: he’s a star athlete, has a beautiful girlfriend he loves, has a family that seems perfect from the outside looking in. But he’s tested when life begins to tighten around his neck, threatens his grip on everything he holds dear, and runs the risk of robbing him of his potential future. Things might seem fine at the outset, but they quickly start to fall apart.
Living in Tyler’s shadow is his younger sister (standout Taylor Russell). The second half of the film takes up her story as she too begins to fall in love and edge towards the same kind of treacherous waters of adulthood as her brother. She meets awkward Luke (Lucas Hedges), who is funny enough to thaw out the chill she’s built as a shield from personal tragedies that have previously shut her down.
“Toxic masculinity” is an overused and mostly useless phrase, and some will inevitably apply that term to the main character in Waves. But to describe his trouble that way is too easy and too general. It implies that aggressive testosterone is in control — but what if the toughness stems from a lack of control, or fear? This is a story about how people can get tangled in and around their own complicated emotions, but are able to ultimately find their way back to each other after splitting apart. It heads in unexpected and deeply moving directions, with the director never losing his assured hand and tight rein on where he wants this story to go and how he wants it end.
Shults wrote, directed, and co-edited Waves with urgency and a pulsating life force. His camera expresses the internal worlds of its subjects with such intimacy you almost forget it’s even there — until you are hit with yet another glorious, breathtaking shot.
Waves will recall Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, as both stories center on black characters living in Florida whose lives float, in and out of water, and are captured so beautifully with dreamy music and heart stopping moments of insight. But Waves is less about finding out who you are (as Moonlight was) and more about a choice we all have to make: do we hold onto hatred, do we continue to fight, or do we let go of past anger, and remember that all we need to hang onto the here and now. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Ronald tells Emily that her brother Trey is not a monster. He’s just human. This father and daughter may have had a hard time connecting throughout their lives, but what brings them together is blood and unbreakable bonds of shared heritage.
The idea that we need more love and less hatred resonates urgently in 2019. Shults has made a persuasive argument for forgiveness, even for the worst people we’ve committed so much of our energy to hating. It is one thing to swarm someone on social media, to mock and dehumanize them. It’s wholly another to remember that most people are simply trying to survive the waves that life sends our way. We can sink and be submerged by them, or we can ride them.
Waves is sure to be regarded as one of the best films of 2019.