In classical Hollywood cinema, most movies rush forward, like a river or roller coaster, along a steady course toward a certain objective. Not so Trey Edward Shults’ brilliant, audacious third feature, “Waves,” whose enigmatic title suggests how its visionary young writer-director sets out to challenge our ideas of how and why things happen in life.
Set in South Florida — not so far from the microcosm Barry Jenkins illuminated in “Moonlight,” though a world apart in terms of social class and opportunity — “Waves” bends and surprises, radiates and engulfs, in a dizzying and ecstatic attempt to capture the love and pain and pressure visited upon a contemporary American family — an African American family, to be precise. For Shults, who is white, doing justice to that experience means projecting beyond himself to capture all that is universal and unique about his four central characters, each of whom feels fully dimensional by the end of this intimate epic.
Propelled by color, energy, electronic music and a quartet of career-making performances, here is that rare sort of cinematic achievement that innovates at every turn, while teaching audiences how to make intuitive sense of the way it pushes the medium. Instead of serving up conventionally scripted scenes, Shults strings together a sequence of powerful vignettes, plunging in and out of his characters’ lives to expose the details that make the Williams family so real and relatable.
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The camera spins inside an SUV as teenage Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) drives with one leg out the window, showing off for his girlfriend Alexis (“Euphoria’s” Alexa Demie). When Tyler talks back to his tough-love father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), over breakfast, Dad challenges him to an arm-wrestling match right there in the diner. At prom, while the dance-floor music throbs in the background, Tyler’s shy kid sister Emily (Taylor Russell) hides out in the ladies’ room, where Alexis shows her how to apply lip gloss, a task she should have done with her unconditionally loving stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
These telling glimpses don’t necessarily advance a clear narrative, but serve to deliver the small, perceptive truths that convince us the characters’ lives carry on in the gaps between all those high-impact jump cuts. With every scene of “Waves,” Shults takes the substance of life and elevates it, surging from one supercharged moment to the next, much as such form-bending filmmakers as Terrence Malick, Alejandro G. Iñárritu and Claire Denis do in their own respective ways. The structure feels more linear in Shults’ hands, but even that’s up for grabs — and best discovered by audiences who don’t know what’s coming.
In their seminal book, “Film Art: An Introduction,” film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson explain, “Hollywood plots consist of clear chains of causes and effects, and most of these involve character psychology.” Countless American movies have followed that model, but it’s hardly the only way to tell a story. Rather than treading a straight path, “Waves” seems to spiral outward, revealing how its characters’ actions impact one another. Instead of reducing their motivations to armchair analysis, the film radically allows for impulsivity, inaction and mistakes — all of which complicate, in a deeply human way, the formula Bordwell and Thompson laid out.
A couple lines later in the same textbook: “The Hollywood protagonist is typically goal-oriented, trying to achieve success in work, sports, or some other activity.” In “Waves,” our putative hero is also goal-oriented: Tyler’s an 18-year-old high school wrestling star with a shot at a state championship and a university scholarship. But the film denies him the traditional hero journey, much as novelist Richard Wright derailed things for Bigger Thomas, the title character in his novel “Native Son,” who sees opportunity evaporate in an instant.
Midway through “Waves,” Shults elbows Tyler aside to refocus on his sister — a shift as radical as what follows the shower scene in “Psycho,” and for which he was inspired by the bifurcated structure of Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express.” Emily’s dreams aren’t nearly so conventional. “I want us to be a family again,” she writes at one point, before thinking twice, and deleting that text message. Still, with those words, Emily emerges from Tyler’s shadow to assert her place as the film’s true protagonist, the character who wrestles hardship into maturity — which in this case might be described as recognizing the impact of one’s actions on others, and putting their well-being ahead of her own.
Actions have impact, rippling out beyond our control, and while stories help us make sense of the chaos, it takes a radical disruption to break through the divisiveness that’s taken hold of our country. “Waves” rejects the reductive notion of good and evil so often presented on film, while exploring forgiveness and acceptance in their many forms. This is not inspirational filmmaking in the faith-based sense, and yet, the movie speaks to the kind of crises that drive desperate people to — and also away from — religious belief, acknowledging that to some degree, we’re all just trying to stay afloat, and that our parents and siblings, imperfect though they may be, are sometimes the only support we have.
Families matter to Shults. They are the substance, conflict and solution of the three films he’s made to date, starting with “Krisha,” in which the director cast his own mother as the out-of-control disruptor whose meltdown turned an otherwise civil Thanksgiving dinner into a kind of middle-American Chernobyl. “It Comes at Night” picked up after an unspecified apocalypse had taken out civilization, leaving two understandably nervous clans to establish a tense sort of trust under the same roof. “Waves” takes a less extreme setup but puts the matter of family dynamics front and center, relying as much on the emotional register of the actors’ performances as it does their on-screen actions to illustrate the dysfunction in the Williams household.
On the surface, Harrison (promoted from a smaller role in “It Comes at Night”) embodies a character not unlike the star high school athlete he tackled in “Luce” earlier this year, but for that film to work, he was obliged to keep things ambiguous, whereas Shults encourages him to explore Tyler’s turmoil. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” Ronald tells him, as Brown channels the high-pressure black father, hyper-present in his son’s life, but withholding of the affection a child also needs. As Emily, Russell is all but invisible for the first half of the film, but emerges as a kind of supernova in the back stretch — a transformation encouraged by a romantic connection with one of Tyler’s white teammates, Luke (Lucas Hedges, an impactful reminder of how much the actor can bring to a smaller role, à la “Lady Bird”). Finally, as Tyler and Emily’s ultra-patient stepmom, Goldsberry represents the glue that holds the Williams’ otherwise broken home together.
There are a million ways that audiences could read the subtle, subtextual nuances to the way these characters navigate their relationships to one another. Shults clearly has his own ideas, using a stream of unexpected but meticulously chosen music tracks to communicate the emotional register throughout. At times, those cues — made seamless by composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) — feel like one with the film’s sound design, echoing the buzz of a vibrating cellphone or a series of background beeps, whereas at others, they represent what words can’t convey, as in twin scenes when Tyler and Emily use drugs, leaning out the passenger windows of their respective vehicles.
Shults finds creative ways to fold all of these influences — from the impact of social media to youthful shows of rebellion to racially biased police stops — into the fabric of this multifaceted portrait, promising rich conversations among all who see “Waves.” Movies of this caliber come along seldom to never, and terrific word of mouth out of the Telluride Film Festival, where this A24 release made its world premiere, should ensure that this anomaly isn’t drowned out in a crowded awards season.