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Waves plays out like a Lifetime Channel melodrama directed by an immensely talented up-and-coming auteur. It looks beautiful, shows a distinct and invigorating voice from director Trey Edward Shults, a hypnotic score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, powerful and emotionally resonant performances… Yet all of it is in the service of an entirely too predictable, unbalanced, and aggressively maudlin and manipulative script. If the script wasn't also by Schults, I could have imagined one of those industry scenarios where a rising filmmaker is given bad material and tries their best to inject life into it through solid and unique execution.
Waves is a family melodrama that reads like a double feature, with two distinct stories splitting the 135 minute runtime. It's overlong and underdeveloped at the same time. The two stories, each worthy of 90-minute features of their own, don't get enough space to breathe. Therefore, the first story ends up as a superficial genre template, and the second one leaves too many narrative threads hanging in the air to provide any satisfying closure. This unbalance ironically creates a languid pace.
The first story centers on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a cool and cocksure high school senior, a star athlete with a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie). Tyler's seemingly perfect life comes crashing down when an injury prohibits him from participating in sports, and his girlfriend confesses to him that she's pregnant. Things really start going downhill from there. The number one rule of cliche melodramas is that whatever's the worst possible consequence for the protagonist, the screenwriter has to double its value in tragedy. A well-written tragedy convinces the audience that the characters get horrible results after doing their best to avoid them. Schults seems to have written the tragedy first, and then backtracked to come up with any excuse to make it happen. It feels forced and artificial.
The second story is about Tyler's sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who forms a deep romantic bond with wrestler Luke (Lucas Hedges) as a way of reconnecting with the outside world after the ordeal that her family has been through. This part, centering more on themes of grief and rejuvenation instead of a strict narrative structure, is the most intriguing and engaging. However, because it's only given about an hour of screen time, it ends up feeling underdone and underexplored.
I love Schults as a filmmaker with his own vision. The way he plays with aspect ratios to convey the characters' frame of mind is fascinating, and he makes good use of that here. It never comes across as a technical gimmick, it's in service of the story's emotions. It Comes at Night was one of my favorite films of 2017, mainly because Schults' style was heavily assisted by a focused and perfectly structured script. In the case of Waves, we see the same talent, but his own script lets him down.
Waves is full of rich blues and reds, mixing together through Schults' constantly spinning camera, letting us into the tumultuous lives of his characters. His visual style is like a combination of Harmony Korine and Terrence Malick. The 1080p transfer captures this vision perfectly, without any video noise or color bleeding. It's vibrant and full of life.
Even though it's a dialogue-heavy drama, I recommend listening to Waves through your surround system. The panning across channels as the camera spins around really immerses us into every scene. The dynamic range between the dialogue and the great score also keeps the tired material as alive as it can.
Commentary with Shults and Harrison Jr.: The director and star have a friendly conversation reminiscing about the production and the story's themes.
Creating Waves: A 14-minute making-of featurette that runs through Waves' themes, director's vision, and cast reactions.
Q&A with Director and Cast: An almost 40-minute Q&A session with Shults and most of the main cast after a screening. Shults goes over many of the same points he did in the commentary.
Deleted Scenes: 13 minutes of excised material that mostly centers on fleshing out the first half.
Waves is a brilliantly directed and passionately acted melodrama, but the script is too by-the-numbers and mawkish to get anything new out of it. Fans of superficial tearjerkers like This is Us (Sterling K. Brown even plays Tyler and Emily's father) might see value in it as such material being executed by a genuine filmmaker. But even then, I wouldn't recommend anything above a rental.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com