Watching the opening credits of Waves, you might notice the inclusion of a crew member rarely mentioned: the colorist, who works closely with the film’s director and cinematographer to achieve their desired palette. It’s an important job on every film but rarely as vital as in this one. Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is a tale brimming with strong emotions—anger, grief, forgiveness—and bathed in bright, primary colors both native to the story and wildly expressionistic. From blaring police lights to the platinum-dyed hair of its teen protagonist, the look of Waves fully expresses its inner world, creating an immersive experience that permeates the soul.
Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school kid from the Miami suburbs who seems to have it all. He’s a wrestler on his way to the state championships, a dedicated student, a trained pianist, boyfriend to the lovely Alexis (Alexa Demie), and a part-time employee of his parents’ business. The thread that holds his life together, however, is thinner than it appears. His father (Sterling K. Brown) rides him too hard, either out of love or resentment over his own lost dreams. The pressure to succeed is crippling, but Tyler doesn’t let himself feel it. So when hard realities abruptly arrive, like during a single day when both his wrestling career and his relationship with Alexis come under immense strain, he has no ability to adjust.
Waves can be a difficult watch. Shults, who earned a reputation as a master of dread with his first two films, the domestic drama Krisha and the straight horror It Comes at Night, now applies his sense of impending doom to America’s youth. Even when Tyler’s young life seems perfect, the constantly-roaming camera feels like a threat. Sometimes it rolls in and out of Tyler’s personal space; elsewhere, it circles him like a predator. Watching his life unravel, as he makes one wrong choice after another, is chilling.
After an act of violence disrupts Tyler’s carefully-planned existence, Waves shifts its gaze to his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) and the nice young man (Lucas Hedges) she meets who seems too good to be true. Following their tender courtship, the tension of the first half slowly dissipates into something more meditative. It’s a rewarding choice that carves out space for all the film’s characters, not only to document their response to the trauma but to share their hopes and dreams, which the actors manifest with quiet courage. Waves shows us a family wrestling with enormous pain who refuses to let it define them.
It’s the most mature film yet by Shults, who displays both a clear vision and a profound sense of collaboration. While its sound and color can feel overpowering at times—the techno-pop score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross propels the action forward, even when you need a break—Shults still gives his actors space for their humanity. His characters connect through shared love of a pop song or the feeling of an ocean breeze. In a sense, the film’s dance between formalism and spontaneity mirrors its characters’ struggles to create meaningful connections under the weight of overwhelming pain. We feel it, too. Waves is heavy, but it still floats.
Waves opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.