‘Waves’ is the first Gen-Z masterpiece
Jake Winningham | Thursday, January 30, 2020
“Love is a four-letter word, and so is hate.”
Most movies avoid including their thesis statement as a piece of dialogue — most of those that are so forward about their intentions can’t find a way to stick the landing. “Waves,” the best film of 2019, isn’t like most movies. Following the trials of an upwardly mobile African-American family in South Florida, the film is a neon-washed, impossibly alive treatise on the human condition. The movie’s greatest achievement is its unique sense of time and place. Thanks to its innate understanding of contemporary teenage life, “Waves” doubles as the first true masterpiece of and about Generation Z.
“Waves” announces the maturation of writer and director Trey Edward Shults, whose previous two features “Krisha” and “It Comes At Night” demonstrated plenty of promise. That promise is delivered here; if most directors can be compared to master musicians playing an instrument, what Shults does with “Waves” is nothing less than symphonic. His camera is constantly moving, turning the film’s South Florida setting into a kaleidoscopic whirl of color and emotion. Shults goes so far as to utilize his aspect ratios as a narrative device, switching between no less than three different framings throughout the course of his movie. Of course, even the strongest director is only as good as the team they use for their movie, and the cast and crew that Shults has assembled for “Waves” is filled from top to bottom with transcendent talent.
The first half of “Waves” focuses on Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school wrestler balancing a demanding home life with that most fleeting of sensations — high school popularity. A series of increasingly debilitating events places him at odds with his parents, both of whom fill different roles within his life and the film itself. Renee Elise Goldsberry plays his mother Catherine with her typical grace. Though she has the least showy role, Goldsberry is in many ways the conscience of “Waves.” As Tyler’s hulking, sonorous father, Sterling K. Brown inverts his usual screen image to do the best work of his career. Where he is charming and relatable in “This Is Us,” here Brown creates a coiled father figure whose shortcomings are reflected in Tyler’s worst moments. Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell both shine as the children in the Williams family. Russell, in particular, has a luminosity about her that suggests stardom is not far off.
Though he is over a decade older than the students he is writing about, Shults has an unusually perceptive grip on the machinations and social mores of teen life in the 2010s. “Waves” inherently grasps the anxiety that accompanies the three flashing dots preceding a text message; entire plot points are delivered via Instagram. Perhaps most impressively for a movie about contemporary youth, “Waves” doesn’t condescend to its subjects, nor does it ever forget that they are children — one of the film’s most wrenching scenes shows stolen painkillers hiding in a retainer case.
Shults obviously dedicated himself to the film’s 30-plus soundtrack cues, with rap and alternative songs coexisting alongside Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ typically confident score. The musical icons of the 2010s are almost treated as characters in their own right, with Frank Ocean and Kanye West alternately soundtracking the highs and lows of Tyler’s life. A character has a panic attack while rapping along to Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” and entire discussions are held about Chance the Rapper and Animal Collective. In a move sure to alienate anybody over the age of 30, Amy Winehouse and Radiohead are elevated to elder-statesman status. The attention shown to the soundtrack, with curated choices standing out instead of the usual cut-and-paste needle drops of other movies, is typical of “Waves” as a whole.
You will have noticed that I have mentioned only the barest bones of the plot of “Waves.” This is a film best experienced knowing as little as possible going in. The second half of the film, in particular, is narratively divergent from the first in a way that is totally unpredictable. Instead of turning to the typical three-act structure, Shults has bifurcated “Waves,” with the second part of the film serving as an answer and corrective to the hour that came before it. Moreover, “Waves” is less concerned with the exact details of its plot and more with how its characters — and, by extension, its viewers — react to the events onscreen. The film has a mature, if uncommon, relationship to how love and hate are intertwined. Rather than position the two emotions as opposites, Shults demonstrates how one can lead to the other; the movie’s most poignant (and unanswered) question is that of how and who we choose to forgive.
I have seen “Waves” three times now. When I watch a movie for a second or third time, it is almost always because I simply want to. Leaving the theater after watching “Waves,” I knew that I had seen something special — a film unlike anything I had ever seen before. Rather than leave the theater, I walked back to the box office and bought a ticket for the very next screening. I didn’t do this because I wanted to see “Waves” again; I did it because I felt I needed to.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
If you like: “Ordinary People,” “Moonlight”
Shamrocks: 5 out of 5