Waves first look: a sibling melodrama that surges with emotion but never breaks

An operatic two-part family tapestry built around open-hearted performances from Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell as a Miami teen wrestler and his sister, Trey Edward Shults’s third film risks drowning the audience in its deep feelings, but never loses sight of dry land.

Ella Kemp

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Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler and Alexa Demie as Alexis in Waves

Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler and Alexa Demie as Alexis in Waves

Frank Ocean notoriously keeps his heart private – giving the world music with such strong emotion that he can afford to retreat as a person while his art weeps for him instead. He’s a clever artist, making music on his own terms; he sandwiched his conceptual visual album Endless (still not available to stream on Spotify) between Channel Orange and Blonde in order to fulfil his recording contract and still be able to create freely.

It’s a surprise, then, that an artist as elusive and adored as Ocean features so heavily in Trey Edward Shults’s unapologetically sprawling and devastating third feature Waves. Tonally it makes sense, as Ocean’s songs pierce through fears of loneliness and inadequacy with a rare vulnerability. There’s more to this operatic film than just Ocean, but his influence seldom fades from view.

Waves tells the story of one family in two parts, the first of which zeroes in on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a promising student athlete whose star falls when his body and heart start to buckle, while the second focuses on his sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who comes to terms with new love and old grudges in a painful period of young adulthood. In both parts, the stakes seem so high that it seems such immense displays of emotion are determined to swallow the viewer whole. 

Waves belongs to the same universe as distributor A24’s other kaleidoscopic adolescent project from earlier this year, Euphoria. The two works share an actor (Alexa Demie) and a cinematographer (Drew Daniels), and both portray the world-shattering mistakes and disappointments in brusque and brilliant detail that can come to shape a teenager’s sense of self. Shults operates in a heightened atmosphere from the off. His camera seldom sits still, magnanimously panning over every inch of a car-ride or an embrace, taking in the expanse of the beach as much as the pores of one boy’s skin.

Waves (2019)

The visuals are scored by music that’s just as ambitious – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross compose dizzying melodies to enhance the introspection, and that’s only the beginning. Ocean is joined by the likes of A$AP Rocky, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar as well as Glenn Miller, Animal Collective and Radiohead on an astonishing, relentless jukebox soundtrack. The aesthetic is anchored by open-hearted performances that punch hard against violence as well as softening in moments of silence. Harrison Jr. and Russell bring deep heartbreak to life, while Demie and Lucas Hedges offer tremendous support in sensitive and generous romantic roles. 

When all these dialoguing elements meet, equally in moods of severe distress or elation, there’s a risk of a deluge. Shults is a master of his own tension, though, enforcing endpoints and breakdowns when needed, draining the colour when it becomes too bright. Waves is too much, too slippery, too fragile to handle. As are so many of the most rewarding objects of our affection.


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