H. G. Wells once said that “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” It is a quote that advocates for hope even as it concedes despair. Trey Edward Shults third feature, the superb Waves, opens with an image of a teenager riding a bike and concludes with a similar image. In each instance, the audience is offered a sense of liberation and youthful possibility, but while the first offers this breezily, the second is qualified by the film’s preceding 130 minutes. The film is naturally buoyant yet unafraid to plummet to darker depths: it is unflinching in its portrayal of the pressures and difficulties that plague contemporary American youths, and courageous in its refusal to shy away from the more frightening impulses of the human psyche.
Waves follows Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a senior at a high school in South Florida. On the surface of it, Tyler seems to have it all. He comes from an affluent family, he’s popular in school, has a loving girlfriend and he’s the star athlete of his school’s wrestling team. But, of course, tensions run beneath this happy façade. Tyler’s father is a loving but stern and domineering patriarch who puts undue pressure on his son to succeed. These expectations weigh Tyler down and partially explain why, when told that he has a serious soldier injury, he continues to wrestle, popping painkillers stolen from his father at an alarming rate. His one source of solace, his relationship, similarly becomes anxiety-inducing when his girlfriend reveals that she is pregnant.
Without revealing anymore of the film, it is necessary to warn audiences that Waves is comprised of two distinct halves. The first belongs to Tyler and strides forward with the swagger of dramatic inevitability while the latter, which predominantly focuses on his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), is more poetic, meditative, languorous. Some critics have taken issue with the film’s structure; I found it to be innovative and refreshing, a yin and yang structure which perfectly complements the film’s own search for a sense of balance and equilibrium.
All of the film’s young stars deserve a mention. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is terrific as Tyler, producing a performance that evokes empathy even as it unsettles us with its ferocity. Similarly, Lucas Hedges continues to carve out a reputation as one of the most naturalistic actors in Hollywood today, managing to be powerful and memorable without ever having to reach for anything out of the ordinary. Taylor Russell perhaps steals the show though as she wears all her troubles with no affectation whatsoever and despite her character’s shyness and natural reserve, she endows Emily with an extraordinary range of emotional depth. A simple pause or a facial gesture here becomes so invested with meaning. Russell captures all of youth’s nervous unsureness in a performance that is mature beyond her years.
Shults is a director who, in this instance, wonderfully matches his content with a particular flair. The film is hyper-stylized but always in the service of its story. Shults’ camera is at times dynamic and roaming and, at other times, it is sombre and contemplative, always allowing his characters’ moods to dictate the film’s presentation. One of Waves’ biggest strengths is that the film’s capacity for empathy never obfuscates its perceptiveness. Shults’ is masterful at rechannelling and repurposing his techniques and while his kinetic, swirling camera initially seems to be mimicking youth’s vibrancy it can rapidly change to communicate the ecstasies of self-destruction or the rumblings of hope and solace from beneath the debris of despair.
There is not an element in Waves that does not seem to be highly thought out – the film is as cohesive as they come. Each element complements another one perfectly whether it is the acting, the directing, the script or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ pulsating, electric score. When the score remains silent, the film tends to swing to the likes of Frank Ocean and Kanye West, as if Tyler and Emily themselves got to choose the soundtracks to their own life. Shults’ film feels personal yet epic, panoramic yet intimate, and is full of moments of deep compassion and profound understanding but never at the cost of honesty or to the expense of melodrama. It is a tough tightrope to walk but it is one that Waves walks perfectly.