Waves – Film Review

Waves crashing with colours, highs and lows soothing but also tumultuous depict Trey Edward Schults’ third film. There is a rhythmic, pulsating poetry in observing Tyler as the protagonist, within a sensual Florida setting, but this is not merely a coming of age tale as an ill fated decision transforms the lives of all that we come into contact with in Waves.

Tyler’s life is idyllic as a top class student and athlete, it all seemed too perfect to be honest, with a family that all respected and love each other. Elements of toxic masculinity serve to undermine this perfect image as Tyler’s father pushes him to strive for perfection.

Some very testosterone fuelled, but ultimately self-destructive, scenes are on display and the camera fragments those biceps, emphasising the masculinity, as the men pump iron and compete to be the ultimate wrestling champion. There is therefore that underlying, but unanswered, question as to what it means to be a man.

Such environment is a stark contrast to the seemingly healthier, loving, environment shared with their female family members, who are perhaps included in Waves as a means to counter the levels of masculine aggression thereby providing harmony, as the metaphorical tide comes in. Waves, perhaps from the outset subtly highlights the differences between a masculine world and a feminine world and is very much a tale of two halves, literally.

Whilst never explicit, there is also a racial undertone as Tyler’s father tells him that he will have to work so much harder than most to achieve a modicum of success. However, as Waves is effectively semi-autobiographical reflecting Schults’ experiences with his father it is therefore not providing that anticipated social commentary on race.

Vicariously, we feel Tyler’s pain in extremely visceral scenes and the film’s aspect ratio changes by narrowing to illustrate that physical tension thereby heightening that initial claustrophobia encountered through a sports injury. I could certainly sympathise with the frustration felt as I too was recovering from an injury during such time and could relate to the inertia felt to adjust one’s life accordingly.

The changing aspect ratios are effective and we can empathise with Tyler as a result but his world is high octane and kinetic. The energetic pans of the camera as it swirls and swoops, whilst he is driving his girlfriend, Alexis, with whom his relationship could at best be described as volatile, demonstrates this level of intensity. I was reminded of Hereditary during a scene where Alexis similarly leans out of the car window and Waves is very effective in ramping up the tension towards a sensation of dread.

The pulsating rhythms of the energetic rap songs, by Kanye and others, played diegetically enhance that sense of frustration and rage experienced by Tyler, increasing the anxiety felt by all. Plus, the colour palette is that of vibrant stunning bright reds and neon colours contributing to that uneasy nail-biting tension; one scene struck me where there is sunset at the beach with Alexis’ neon orange painted nails glowing in the distance, it was so beautifully filmed. Equally, there are transition scenes containing just a bright colour swashing across the screen like paint, it is visually stunning.

Alternatively, some scenes fade to black. It is all very impressive as far as cinematography goes but intense by the same token. In many ways, some of the scenes are reminiscent of Moonlight with the beauty exuded through the colours used that radiate from street lights and the water to demonstrate progression within the characters.

I had not watched any of Schults’ previous films but Waves left a huge impression on me. The film provides that character study with a humane review of family life and urges us as the audience to probe beneath the surface. There are moments at dinner where characters are unable to communicate their initial pain as Tyler did not initially reveal the extent of his shoulder injury to his parents which may ultimately have resulted in a better outcome for him and for my nerves too! However, it is sometimes an erroneous life decision made in an instance which can have a devastating effect.

Whilst it is pleasing to have a positive representation of a family of African American descent without subscribing to the negative stereotypes, Waves perhaps goes to the opposite extreme with such a wholesome family image which seems unrealistic at times.

Tyler, Emily and family in Waves
Tyler, Emily and family in Waves

However, such positivity is appreciated within the second act where a deliberate sense of calm is apparent with scenes focusing on Tyler’s sister, Emily, I was certainly relieved to witness some more peaceful scenes at that moment as I had been on the edge of my seat with the earlier, gripping but intense scenes as the waves reached their crescendo!

In Waves, Emily’s life is certainly structured as the antithesis to that of Tyler’s. Scenes such as driving carefree in the car and being on the beach with a romantic partner are repeated but there is a contrast with wider angles employed in Emily’s world and that pervading soothing sensation. The camera purposefully lingers on an I-phone playing Frank Ocean’s Blonde album which is deliberately soothing compared to the rap music in Tyler’s life. The ebbs and flows of the waves are apparent in this act as a different level of pain reverberates and the film’s tempo has changed as a result. All of these elements appear to highlight, once more, that difference between the toxic male environment and a more empathetic scenario.

Schults does not compromise the emotion explored within these scenes with close ups demonstrating an emotional pain in the midst of the calm but traumatic developments which ensue. Another director might have edited such moments of dealing with loss, after the devastation experienced, but Schults does not evade exploring this human condition with the family ensemble. The slow pace at this stage provides a platform for healing for the characters but also for ourselves as the audience following the turbulent first act of the film.

Indeed, the performances are superb with Kelvin Harrison, Jr, of Luce fame, as the volatile Tyler and Taylor Russell conveys a quiet but mature, steely determination in Emily and I would certainly be keen to watch other films in which she features.

The parents offer convincing supportive roles with Sterling K Brown impressing as the stern father figure and the effects of the family trauma can also be experienced throughout his heart-wrenching revelations in the aftermath to his daughter, Emily. These scenes powerfully emphasise the importance of communication within families and it is a bittersweet message by this point. The colour palette is now also reflective of a heathier situation with natural, golden hues and the camera subtly observes from a distance.

Unfortunately, there are a few meandering moments within Waves with some unnecessary scenes involving ancillary characters. Whilst such moments may provide a catalyst for the family to explore emotions, it would have been preferable for the film to focus on Tyler and Emily’s family as there was sufficient material to unravel. The final scenes are tremendously moving, providing a degree of resolution as well as redemption and may be indicative of a sense of hope for the future.

Waves certainly exceeded my expectations and it is mesmerising to watch with the beautiful cinematography apparent even within its tense moments. Waves will certainly take you on a rollercoaster ride but it is presented with such empathy and masterful direction that the film cannot help but leave an impact. It is an aesthetically pleasing film and is very poetic in its execution; overall, Waves is a mood – at times bleak and at other times hopeful but with an extraordinary kaleidoscope of colours on display to portray such emotions as well as a brilliantly fitting soundtrack and equally astounding score.

As such, Waves is a film that is best experienced on a large screen for the full immersion and so you should definitely watch it before its cinema run ends!

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