There’s a compelling drama behind all of the flashy editing and cinematography in “Waves.” It also seems to be two movies in one, which makes for some real inconsistency in tone. Some may praise the non-traditional structure and camerawork, but I found it to be frustrating and unnecessary. The music is also overly obnoxious in the first half, but becomes much more understated in the second half. I understand that creating atmosphere is the main goal in “Waves,” but technical achievements weren’t what I was interested in in such an intimate story.
“Waves” is about an African-American family living in south Florida. The first half of the film largely focuses on the son, Tyler, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. Tyler is your typical high school jock – he wrestles, has a pretty girlfriend, procrastinates studying, and flexes in front of the mirror in his free time. Sometimes he works out with his father, Ronald, played by Sterling K. Brown. Ronald instills a sense of hard work into his son – he pressures him to be better than everyone else, because he says “they have to be.” There are a lot of strong dialog moments in “Waves” followed by high tides of scratchy music that washed me out of the story. Every time the script got deep or serious, those moments would be followed with extravagant camera work or sound editing. It became really frustrating.
I’ve come to realize that I’m not all that interested in stories revolving around drugs and alcohol, and “Waves” has those typical teen moments of substance abuse. Tyler is faced with a difficult decision that drives his abuse forward, and his resulting lack of control causes disaster. There are truly waves ripping apart the family. After the climax of the story, we are pulled back from the rocky seas to the blissful ponds, as the focus shifts from Tyler to his sister, Emily, played by Taylor Russell. A much more intelligent and emotionally stable character, her half of the story is the part that I most enjoyed and found myself invested in. She’s also far more likeable, and after having spent an hour with Tyler, I was dreading the thought of having to continue on for the remaining hour with him. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.
The film really shines in its third act, when at times Shults allows the camera to linger on the actors and focus on their performances. It seems that for most of the time he either didn’t realize or didn’t care about the exceptional talent he was filming. A scene between Ronald and Emily is especially emotional, and also happens to be the most still, beautiful shot of the whole film. We follow Emily and her new boyfriend Luke as they form a beautiful relationship full of respect, kindness, and communication – essentially the opposite of Tyler’s. They do things together that are highly metaphorical in the story, and many of the trips they take are purposefully meant to heal past wounds and help them rediscover love for their families. I teared up twice in the second half, which I might as well just call “Ripples.”
Shults’ flashy camerawork shows up again in the very end of the film with a spin that harkens back to the shot that he opened with. It literally implies that we have come full circle. It’s just so on the nose and borderline pretentious that my eyes did their own spin. While I think this may be Shults’ best work thus far, he needs to learn to control himself if he wishes to continue telling these types of stories. One of the hardest lessons for the artist is to learn is that of restraint – to recognize when they have tried to put too much into their creation. Sadly, “Waves” suffers from a lack of control on the part of its director that mirrors his own leading male character. Still, “Waves” takes a unique look at masculinity (culturally specific masculinity), and has some of the best performances of the year. And “Ripples” is truly a touching film.