Waves (Trey Edward Shults, 2019) 1 out of 4 stars.
A film as unpleasant as it is pointless, Waves, from writer/director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) delves deep into the void of meaning with great cinematographic fanfare, the camera swirling in dizzying moves that mimic the disorientation of its lead characters, only to reveal by its end that that’s the whole game. Baroque and flashy for the sake of it, the film takes us down a path of youthful depression and anger that culminates in a horrible act, then does nothing with that experience, abandoning the first narrative to focus on a new one. The emptiness of his overall conceit is never as evident as when he frantically insists, without success, on parallels between his two stories. Good performances from all involved are the only bright spots in an otherwise dismal affair.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce) plays Tyler, a high-school scholar and athlete seemingly destined for great things. Close to his father – played by Sterling K. Brown (Hotel Artemis) – with whom he works out in quasi-competitive exercise routines, he lives the good life, until an unhealed injury gets in the way. Refusing to be sidelined during wrestling season, he injures himself further, stealing painkillers to keep himself going. The good life turns bad, quickly, and after he pushes his girlfriend away in the days before prom, his downward spiral twists ever further towards bottom, camera and teen in symbiotic concert as both whip around in paroxysms of confusion. And then, completely out of control, Tyler does something terrible, right at the midpoint of this two-hour-and-fifteen-minute film. More crazed ocular pirouettes and some flashing lights ensue, and we enter part two.
Here, Tyler is but a footnote, as we follow his sister Emily’s story. Played by Taylor Russell (Escape Room), she’s a wallflower to Tyler’s brash confidence, until she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges, Honey Boy), a wrestler and former teammate of her brother. He’s damaged goods, too, and together they help each other heal. For him, it’s his father who is to blame, and thanks to Emily he decides to explore ways to reconnect. Unlike the first half, this story is a gently stirring exploration of young romance, but when Shults insists on emphasizing what he sees as connections to that first half – through flashbacks and lateral temporal cuts – it feels not only forced, but false. It’s too bad, because Russell, like Harrison before, is excellent.
I am not opposed to films about difficult subjects, but I’d like to feel as if there is a reason why the audience is subjected to the torture of watching something awful. Make it count. For a while after the unforgivable act that ends part one, I was convinced that Shults was planning a major shift in the narrative, perhaps a revisitation of the nastiness from a different point of view, or even something supernatural like a re-do, so heightened are the sounds and visuals at that moment, including a shift in aspect ratio (which he will continue to play with throughout the movie). But no. It’s as if he has all the tools – many of them impressive – but not the wherewithal to use them. What a waste.