Waves (2019): Not Your Regular Coming of Age Story

There are few films that portray the human condition as poignantly and honestly as Waves. And they do it with a soundtrack filled to the brim with straight bangers. 

Waves paints a portrait of two teenagers treading in the deep waters of love, identity, and pain with the deft, purposeful strokes of a master artist. It twists, flips, bends and blurs the lines between a familiar story of dissipating family order and an enigmatic, sensory experience of dizzying camerawork, immaculate soundscapes, and innovative visuals. Schults drags audience members through a relentless, 135-minute journey of rage, grief, perseverance, and empathy. 

The heavy, even panting of Emily, horizon-bound on her bicycle in the opening and ending shots of Trey Edward Shults’ coming-of-age masterpiece, Waves, perfectly encapsulates the essence of the film within a single shot. 

The movie is cyclical, like the ceaseless peddling of the secondary protagonist atop her bike, but simultaneously bound towards an uncertain, unpromising future. Beyond the story, this scene provides a snapshot of the ingenious creative direction behind each and every scene in this film. 

Schults’ directorial voice rings clear in Waves. Every creative choice gets the audience closer into the characters’ minds, seeing what they see, feeling what they feel. It is an immersive, emotional experience that lingers between one’s thoughts long after they leave the theatre. Waves takes the audience through a lot, but it’s worth it. 

Stills from the movie. (Courtesy of A24)

Stills from the movie. (Courtesy of A24)

The Breakdown

Waves is a story of an African Amerian family navigating through the murky waters of tragedy, trauma, adolescence, and atonement. There is no resolution, no clean ending for any of the characters, much like in real life, where loose ends are left untied and questions left unanswered as we negotiate our identity within an unforgiving world. 

The previously still, perfect waters of protagonist Tyler’s life become progressively rippled as each facet of his carefully crafted teenage reality starts falling apart. As a promising high school wrestler with a picturesque relationship with his girlfriend Alexis, Tyler is bound for nothing less than a perfect college career. 

His relationship with his family is a familiar one—a pleasant relationship with his stepmother, a distant one with his sister Emily and a complex, mentor-mentee dynamic with his strict father, who pushes him as an athlete and as a young, black male. But with each wrong turn, misfortune and unexpected twist, Tyler’s waters become violently disrupted.

The pivotal moment of the movie elicits a myriad of responses—disbelief, devastation, yet despite its reprehensibility, it is still understandable. The anger, confusion and stress that culminated within Tyler finally explode in a twist that was anticipated but never expected. The audience is left to reevaluate their perceptions of the characters through a more critical lens of what they have been through and what they have done. That is a true testament to Schults’ ability to get viewers to empathize and understand the lived experiences of his characters. 

In the second act of a two-part saga, the characters work with the remnants of their previous reality in the wake of a traumatic event that rips apart their home. Slowly, they resurface into a new place, a new family and a new world. 

‘Waves’ director Trey Edward Shults and star Kelvin Harrison Jr. do a Q&A after the screening at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto on Sept. 14, 2019. (The Unaffiliated Press/Minh Truong)

‘Waves’ director Trey Edward Shults and star Kelvin Harrison Jr. do a Q&A after the screening at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto on Sept. 14, 2019. (The Unaffiliated Press/Minh Truong)

The Direction

Waves is not a new story, but it is elevated by its incredible cinematic choices.

Every creative decision, from the aspect ratio, which cycles through various dimensions throughout the movie, to the amorphous orbs of color that radiate across the screen before blending into police strobe lights floating across Tyler’s face, is handpicked perfectly to bring the audience closer to the emotional state of the characters. The tight, almost square aspect ratio used in the climax of the movie forces the viewers into Tyler’s panicked state as he grapples with what he has just done. Later in the movie, the ratio goes ultra-wide as Emily goes for a road trip up the vast expanses of suburban Florida, bringing a sense of liberation and relief as the characters make it over its most intense moments. 

Waves doesn’t stick to a pattern. It experiments with everything and somehow manages to pull it all off. Some transitions are stark, like the slam of Tyler’s hand as his father bests him in arm wrestling that snaps to a scene of the men grunting and pumping weights in their home gym. The sharp cut to the next scene emphasizes the predominantly physical nature of Tyler’s relationship with his father. Other transitions take their time, like the slow ascension of the camera angle as it shoots Catharine comforting Tyler in the locker room with his injured shoulder, spinning vertically beyond their sightline, beyond Tyler’s control as he slowly loses grip over his athletic career.

Music is an integral piece to Waves, with Tyler and Emily donning their own soundtracks in their respective acts. There are some moments that are too perfect, like when Tyler destroys his room to Tyler the Creator’s guttural  “IFHY” and every fibre of teenage rage and frustration and confusion can be felt through the combination of sharp, darting camerawork and the oppressive vocals and synths of the song. Emily’s quiet, contemplative days are captured through Sabrina Claudio’s ethereal whispers as the teenager stares out at the rain through her bedroom window endlessly, stuck and stagnant.

From the start of the movie, it is apparent that the soundtrack of Waves is the heartbeat of the film. Tyler and Alexis belt out feel-good summer tunes in the car as a 360-camera shot captures their unfiltered, youthful energy in one of the happiest moments of the film. Later in the film, in the same car, Tyler’s drives steadfastly to a point of no return to Kanye West’s chanting in “I Am a God.” Each song rises to the forefront of its respective scene and guides the flow of the movie. Integral scenes are paired with a memorable song in a musical-esque fashion. 

Still from the movie. (Courtesy of A24)

Still from the movie. (Courtesy of A24)

Closing thoughts

Waves is a breath of fresh air. It’s a sigh of relief, a gasp of horror and the panting of a girl pedaling away at life. 

Some scenes are slow, meditative breaths, while others are held breaths, as we brace ourselves for the chaos to come.

Everything about the film ebbs and flows, like waves. The camerawork spins and flips, the music and sound design blend into each other amorphously. There is little shape or form to Waves, yet it does have a vague destination, and it does make its way there. 

In a world that is strictly polarized into good and bad, Waves explores empathy and complexity of some of the most volatile humans—teenagers, and raises questions about forgiveness, acceptance, and identity the audience are left to ponder. 

The film’s protagonists, like the perpetual rolling of waves, rise, fall, and crash into themselves as they reach for a distant shore.