A domestic melodramatic story, “Waves” is the story of a family in Florida that is nearly undone by a terrible tragedy, one that breaks everything apart. The film is also a spectacular testament of how story and characters come together and how they need each other to tell a very powerful story, one that barely or ever comes and it is a spectacular testament to Trey Edward Shults, the writer and director for this film as this film is his third one. As in his beautiful debut in 2016 about a woman who breaks down at Thanksgiving, Waves is a powerful sensory experience with beautiful sound design and beautiful cinematography, the likes that can be only seen in films or pieces of entertainment that barely ever comes.
The story in Waves is brutal and very tragic; it begins on a catastrophic mistake and ends in a devastating aftermath which bookends on the image of a girl riding a bike into the unknown, the story is told in two parts. The first half is about a 17 year old high school student who is struggling to keep everything in line and with his stern father pushing him, he is struggling to keep his emotions and feelings to himself.
In the first half of the film, Shults keeps to him like a dog following his owner everywhere he goes, creating a beautiful sense of intimacy that locks you in into his middle-class life, his home, and the world that the film is in. Tyler is often on the move and you’re there alongside him for every turn, you see him with his girlfriend or lifting weights with his stern father or going to school until he just breaks due to the pressure and stress that he is under; the rage that engulfs him is the kind of rage that some people can understand and when the tragedy comes it is cataclysmic and unutterably sad.
In the second half, soon after this tragic mistake comes to an end, the film focuses on his younger sister, Emily. Unlike her older brother, Tyler, Emily is soft spoken and quiet and keeps to herself and Shults adjusts the pace and direction accordingly and it’s really neat to see. Now with the focus on Emily, everything is more slowed down and calm, creating a great seismic shift in how the film plays out and creating a sense of quietness which is a relief but is also part of Emily’s isolation in the wake of this tragic mistake.
Much like Barry Jenkins and Moonlight, this section of Waves and the first half is very visual which expresses inner thought, inner expressions that isn’t explicitly said with the dialog, and inner worlds that show interiority instead of visually communicating it; this form of storytelling can be found across film history but it works really well here and it’s very powerful here; colors and visuals can be just as powerful as words that are spoken from the mouth. Shults gives nods and silently appreciates what Barry Jenkins did in Moonlight with numerous shots that pierces the heart and the soul and stays with you forever.
Amid family reckoning, Emily, who is now the main protagonist, gets to know a fellow student by the name of Luke and both fall in love. From their awkward flirtation to the cross country road trip that both of them find themselves in as Emily struggles with her inner self, we watch them blossom and everything is innocent as it is when it comes to first love and the beginnings of something special. The first half was a tumbling form of nonstop action, this side of the story gives way to expansiveness and the wisdom of the film begins to open up to you in a way that only few films or pieces of entertainment can do. The shift to this more slowed down approach signals the impulse of healing as Emily is grappling with anger, grief, and guilt alongside love as she searches for a way to accept what has happened.
The power of Waves is something that is inseparable from the beautiful aesthetics that the film has but what resounds most potently is the most simple message that a single look can change everything.