REVIEW: ‘Waves’ looks pretty, but lacks substance

“Waves,” a new film by director Trey Edward Shults, goes into wide release this Friday. (Photo from IMDb)

It’s hard to know where to begin with “Waves.” If you’ve seen the trailer, which mainly consists of pretty images with Frank Ocean songs playing over them, you probably think you already have a sense of what the film is: slice of life, aesthetically pleasing, poignant, very A24. And it is all those things — for the first 15 minutes. Then, everything goes wrong.

This is Trey Edward Shults’ third feature film, coming off the backs of “Krisha,” a fiercely personal, low-budget, critically acclaimed debut and “It Comes at Night,” a quasi-horror film that got mixed reviews. But “Waves” is a departure from both of them. 

You can definitely tell that this is Shults’ work right off the bat. Overall, he does a good job directing the film, utilizing a plethora of simple but effective formal tricks. For example, we’re introduced to the characters early on through a sequence that’s almost a montage, but the cuts are replaced by the camera rotating, traveling from location to location as it turns. It’s the kind of technique implemented in almost any film, regardless of budget, which is interesting. He also plays with the aspect ratio, making the frame smaller to indicate a character’s feelings of entrapment or opening it back up wide to show they feel free.

While Shults is fairly competent as a director in the formal sense, as a writer, he makes some questionable choices. Despite what the trailers lead viewers to think, this is a film that’s more tragic than poignant. Shults bifurcates the structure, so the first half focuses on the tragic spiral of Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and then the second abruptly switches perspectives to his sister, Emily Williams (Taylor Russell).

This move, although interesting and perhaps even radical, does not work. The first story is a tight spiral downward. It focuses on Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) and father (Sterling K. Brown), deftly using those bonds to explore the cyclical nature of toxic masculinity. 

Tyler is a wrestler whose father pushes him to achieve more and work harder to the point that he hides a potentially life-ruining injury from him when he is diagnosed. The climax of the story — which I won’t spoil — involved an anxiety-inducing party scene and the very creative use of Kanye West’s “I Am a God.”

Then we switch to Emily’s story, and that’s where the film starts to become messy. In stark contrast to the narrative tightness of the first half, the film’s second half opens itself up to explorations of vague themes. There are continuous discussions of “peace,” “love” and “forgiveness” without any type of meaningful exploration. Shults completely sidelines the parents of the Williams family, instead introducing a love interest for the daughter played by A24 poster boy Lucas Hedges in what may be his worst performance: an overly-cutesy, self-aware, I’m-awkward-but-so-cute-because-of-it type thing. It’s quite disappointing.

The way the film approaches race is also worth writing about. On one hand, it was definitely marketed as a post-“Moonlight” Black movie, yet the director is white and neglects to meaningfully explore the racial component of the story. That could be for the better since that may not necessarily be his place, but it still feels like a crucial aspect of the narrative and the characters that is not explored.

That’s not to say the film is all bad — the performances all around are great. In particular, Demie has an ethereal screen presence and Brown is fantastic, as well. 

Cinematographer Drew Daniels is also incredible, crafting a film that, at the very least, is incredibly aesthetically pleasing. Each shot of the film has a strong visual style to it. There were even moments when the film would transition into pure abstraction, becoming a soup of warmth, color and sound. The soundtrack, for the most part, is also well done, apart from one questionable and almost comical use of “IFHY” by Tyler, the Creator.

Ultimately, “Waves” is a mixed bag. If you’re a fan of Shults or A24, this may be worth seeing, if only for the pretty songs and beautiful cinematography. But if you’re looking for thematic coherence or a meaningful narrative, this may not be the wave.