Waves is Empathy in Cinematic Form – and a Masterpiece
Waves asks something very difficult of its audience. Trey Edward Shults’s third film seeks your empathy – for bad people, for good people who do bad things, and for people who lead lives and face difficulties with which many have little in common. In return, though, Waves doesn’t leave its audience empty-handed. Instead of asking you to feel for its characters, the movie weaponizes every tool in the filmmaking arsenal to make you feel with them. It’s a lot to demand of perpetually distracted 2019 movie-goers, but if you're willing to be as vulnerable as those in front of and behind the camera, you will encounter a cinematic experience that you won’t soon forget.
The story of how one family responds to pressure and pain, Waves opens on a day in the life of Tyler, played by a crushingly exposed Kelvin Harrison Jr., an 18-year-old high school senior who doesn’t have the luxury of taking a breath. Shults’s filmmaking matches Ty’s pace: in a breakneck opening sequence, Ty feels the pressure from his screaming wrestling coach, his high-expectations father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), and his play-hard buddies. He’s living the dream on a razor’s edge. And as Ty’s mother Catharine’s (Renée Elise Goldsberry) favorite song goes, “what a difference a day makes.” As things start to go wrong for Ty, the crippling isolation and pressures he faces as a young black man rear their ugly heads. When he learns of a potentially career-ending injury, he hides it from both his coach and his parents, weathering the burden of high expectations through stony silence and stolen painkillers. Masculinity is thrust on him from all sides – school, family, friends. As his life spirals, Ty’s father sits him down, reminding him that as a black teenager, he has to do ten times as much as his peers to succeed. “I don’t push you because I want to, I push you because I have to,” he tells his son, before near-scolding him to learn how to balance the pressures of his life. Who is Ty supposed to talk to about his problems? As his potential outlets disappear one-by-one, the tension builds to a bursting point. Waves imposes this pressure on its audience in parallel with its protagonist. As Tyler faces more and more stressors with fewer people to talk to, the walls close in on both him and the audience – in the latter case, literally. Shults subtly but effectively utilizes a shifting aspect ratio: as Tyler feels increasingly trapped, the screen gets narrower and narrower. The music gets louder and, eventually, distorted, putting the audience directly in Ty’s head. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also necessary to understand what he’s going through. And that’s the trick of Waves. It’s so focused on how having someone to talk to, someone who understands, can make all the difference, that you almost miss Waves turning its audience into that very someone. But Waves isn’t just Ty’s story. In a flurry of blurred colors and sounds, Waves shifts perspectives from Tyler to his sister, Emily, played by a patient, purposeful Taylor Russell. In the aftermath of family heartache, Emily is thrust into isolation as her family and friends grieve in their own ways. It’s a jarring move from a storyteller full of confidence, and for every moment you wonder what’s going on, you also pay closer attention, sitting up a bit straighter, curious about what’s coming next. And once again, Trey Shults makes audiences feel what a difference a day – what a difference a single person – can make. Partway through Emily’s half of the movie, she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges), and as a meet-cute montage plays out under the voiceover of an awkward introductory phone call, the claustrophobia unwinds. The aspect ratio expands. Colors shift from a hot red and orange to a cooler lavender and light blue. The music transitions from high-octane to laid-back, quieter, more reflective. If you’re open to the highs and lows of Waves, you may find a curious thing happens: your body matches the aspect ratio. As it tightens, you clench. As it expands, relief washes over you, and you sit back. And as Emily moves toward forgiveness, Waves constantly points out the difference that personal support can make. Emily runs into the same situations Ty did – the same situations most high schoolers do. Yet from peer pressure (“jump!”) and teenage sex to drugs and limbs hanging out of windows, these moments don’t feel as loaded with dread and tension as they did during Ty’s spiral. Emily has just as many stressors in her life as her brother, but she has outlets. She has Luke. And eventually, miraculously, she has her father. In a mirror image of the scene between Ronald and his son, the Williams family patriarch finally relinquishes his hold on masculinity, showing his vulnerable side to his daughter. Ronald lays bare to Emily the strain that past trauma has put on his marriage, and, catching himself, tells her that he just doesn’t “have anyone else to talk to.” Just as his son had nobody to talk to. Healing is not a process we can go through alone. Anxiety, anger, hurt – these are things we can feel alone. But forgiveness? Forgiveness requires others. It requires reaching out a hand to someone to let them know you forgive them, to let them know they can forgive themselves. Waves is bifurcated on that simple concept. In its first half, nobody reaches a hand out to Ty, whether he may deserve it or not. But in the second, compassion reigns. Between Ronald and Catharine; Emily and her parents; Luke and his father. But most importantly, between the film and those watching. Waves reaches its hand out to its audience, inviting you to first empathize with the Williams family, and then with your own family and friends. It is a singular film in style and in substance, and I can’t shake it.