Waves (2019)

Trey Edward Shults | 2hr 15min

Oftentimes when tragedy strikes, life can feel as if it is divided into two distinct periods of before and after, and it is exactly this turning point upon which Trey Edward Shults pivots the rich character drama of Waves. There is a hint of heartbreak in the Williams family’s past with Tyler and Emily’s biological mother having passed away from a drug overdose when they were young, and though this may indicate the presence of some underlying trauma ready to spill out again in a different form, so too does it reveal the resilience of this family unit in building themselves back up from the deep pits of grief. Especially with their father, Ronald, remarrying Catherine, a woman who loves the children like her own, things look about as stable as ever, pulling us along a thread of lingering hope all the way through Shults’ steady, introspective examination of Tyler’s troubled mind. It is along this emotional trajectory that the camera energetically flies with its characters, reaching joyous heights that spin in cars to upbeat pop music, and sink to shameful lows that hang obscurely on the back of their heads, refusing to let even their most reprehensible actions shake it from its unwavering empathetic perspective.

Energetic 360-degree camera pans in cars, spinning around as if dancing to the music with the characters.
Shults begins to hang his camera on the back of Tyler’s head as we are steadily distanced from him, and he grows more isolated.

Shults is patient with his world building through the first half of Waves, sitting with the Williams family through all their modest interactions across dinner tables, diners, school gymnasiums, and workplaces, where a portrait of comfortable routine and subtle interruptions delicately forms. Perhaps just as astounding as his spirited camerawork rolling briskly through each of these environments with inspired vigour is his thorough dedication to the dual colour scheme that formally connects the calm, gentle security of everyday life to the simmering violence fighting for dominance. Though it is the soothing blue hues which dominates much of the film’s first half in Kieslowski-style palettes, gorgeously washing a romantic beach scene in a cool, natural light and representing the home colours of Tyler’s school wrestling team, a visual conflict is set up early on in his bedroom. As we energetically pan around the space, we recognise that much like the other settings we have entered so far, almost everything from the walls to the bedsheets is dyed some shade of blue, until we reach his curtains which slash two translucent lines of red down either side of a turquoise strip of fabric.

Blue in Tyler’s school gymnasium, where is most at home. Absolute dedication to a colour palette from Shults, much like Kieslowki before him.
Two thin red strips of fabric framing the window in Tyler’s room – totally integral to the formal progression of his character and visual style.

Bit by bit, as pressure begins to mount on Tyler in various directions, Shults’ blue lens flares and décor slip out of his beautifully curated designs, and angry reds begin to dominate. Ronald is far from an abusive father, and yet there is the question of whether he is pushing his son a little too hard to succeed, especially when Tyler unwisely decides that his diagnosed SLAP tear should be kept secret and simply treated with painkillers. This only feeds into other unhealthy habits that continue to degrade his mental state, as a trip to a liquor store vibrantly shocks us into a scene lit with aggressive crimson hues, and later at a party he is framed behind the flames of a raging bonfire. Just as concerning is his choice to keep wrestling and damaging his body, with his struggling athletic performance against a rival school set inside a vibrant, red gymnasium.

The first shot in the film where red dominates, as Tyler enters a liquor store right after being diagnosed with a SLAP tear. A gorgeously placed long dissolve too into the blue close-up of the bottle being poured.
The rival team’s gym is almost entirely red, once again setting up a conflict with the blue gym we are used to seeing Tyler practice in.
Warm fire blazing in the foreground over Tyler’s face at a party – a hellish image.

Throughout this spiralling, the tender love that has persisted through even the characters’ worst fights starts to fade, eventually hitting rock bottom when Tyler’s girlfriend, Alexis, decides to keep their baby she has accidentally fallen pregnant with. Where our compassion turns into outright fear for those around him comes at a house party following their breakup, where we follow his search for his now ex-girlfriend in a long take lasting several minutes. As he doggedly moves through the house, Shults swathes him in neon red lighting looking straight out of a Nicolas Winding Refn film, formally melding his vibrant style and narrative at Waves’ devastating climactic midpoint.

Vibrant neon lighting like Nicolas Winding Refn as we reach the devastating midpoint of Waves, drawing an expressionistic contrast between the colours while we hang behind him in one long tracking shot.

It is hard to regain our bearings immediately following Tyler’s outburst of violence, as a cut to black fleetingly detaches us from the shock of the moment, only to return us a few seconds later to his horrified face and Alexis’s head bleeding out on the ground. Suddenly, the world feels a lot smaller – quite literally, given that the aspect ratio has shrunk to a narrow box, containing shattering close-ups within stifling frames. Shults’ pop and hip-hop soundtrack gives way to a distorted electronic sound design, and as we frantically intercut between Tyler’s escape, his father’s desperate search, and the arriving police, flashing emergency lights swallow them all into a tunnel of despair.

A change in aspect ratio as the world closes in around us, now fully consuming Tyler in the flashing emergency lights…
…And then a smooth transition into Emily’s perspective, formally splitting Waves into two halves separated by tragedy.

Though it is Tyler we follow into it, locked up in the backseat of the squad car, it is Emily we observe coming out, being driven to her brother’s sentencing. The transition here is slick and seamless, and it is especially significant given the switch of perspective it represents, cutting the film in two halves. Even as we sit in court, Shults deliberately avoids showing Tyler’s face, severing us entirely from his side of the story and instead keeping us firmly in Emily’s traumatised, confused mind. From this point on, she is the one the camera sits with in lonely close-ups, tracking her through school where she is forced to hear the things people say about him and suffer the silent judgement that comes with being his sister. Gone is the pop soundtrack, which is now replaced by a gentle piano score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and with this more soothing soundscape Shults works back in his blue palette, now distinctly more poignant than before.

Back home, fresh wounds keep ripping themselves back open with each fight, as Emily’s parent’s struggle to reconcile their different grieving processes. As we sit in her point-of-view watching them through the bedroom door, Shults’ camera steadily zooms in on Catherine’s broken face for several minutes before shifting to Ronald’s teary face in the final seconds, leaving us torn between both sides of this emotional distress. Emily, meanwhile, cannot find the energy to fight with her loved ones. She is full of rage, and she directs it all towards the brother whose actions she cannot easily reconcile with their old, loving relationship. The easy option is to label him an evil monster, but as Ronald reminds her, he is simply a human being. To hang onto that hate is to deny herself any healing.

A long take that simply zooms in on Catherine’s broken face for several minutes, watching this argument unfold from Emily’s perspective in the next room over.

Then into her life walks Luke, one of Tyler’s old wrestling teammates. He is kind and open, though given the circumstances, she is understandably wary. As Waves gains some distance from the tragedy at its centre, Shults progressively winds it back down with a decelerating pace that falls back into the lyrical montage editing from earlier in the film. Not long after, the upbeat rhythms of Tame Impala and Kanye West join back in, and at the point that Emily finally decides to open herself up again, the aspect ratio changes yet again, though this time into a widescreen format that lays her whole world out before us. This manipulation of frame proportions to reflect the internal life of characters is not unlike that which Xavier Dolan experimented with in Mommy five years earlier, but Shults’ use of this device fluctuates even more significantly, as Emily’s decision to help Luke make amends with his estranged, dying father eventually sees a resurrection of the full-screen aspect ratio from the start, and with it, a return to stability.

Another shift in aspect ratio, this time marking Emily’s conscious decision to embrace new beginnings. There are few directors who experiment so freely with this device – Wes Anderson and Xavier Dolan comparisons come to mind.

Shults wields a dextrous hand over the symmetry of his film, not just in balancing out the joy and the tragedy in his drama, but it is even within its narrative structure and colours, always ready counterpoint one emotion with its inverse. As such, a rich duality of identities, relationships, and emotional journeys is baked deep into the formal construction of Waves, though as its title suggests, these characters’ lives will forever be an oscillation between extremes, rising and dipping like the gorgeous blue ocean we delicately hover over, watching a couple whose imminent suffering will in turn give birth to new love.

Colourful lens flares heavily evoke Punch Drunk Love, slipping us into a haze through dreamy transitions.

Waves is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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