Waves review: stirring and showy, this is the kind of cinema that keeps you young
Dir: Trey Edward Shults; Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr, Taylor Russell, Sterling K Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Alexa Demie, Lucas Hedges. 15 cert, 136 mins.
Growing up in Florida – at least if Waves is anything to go by – must feel like jumping down the barrel of a kaleidoscope. The life of Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is an endless whirl of colour: house parties, beach parties, training with his wrestling team, driving with the stereo turned up and his pretty girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) in the passenger seat.
An ambitious black high schooler bearing down on graduation, Tyler is always on the go, and the camera races to keep up, spinning and circling by turns and trying its best to drink in every moment. Stopping is not an option, perhaps because of the load he carries on his shoulders.
Tyler’s father (Sterling K Brown) is a stern, self-made building contractor whose success has clearly been hard-won, and who is raising his son to push himself at all times, aware that even today, black American middle-class life comes without a safety net. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” he tells the boy. “We’ve got to work 10 times as hard just to get anywhere.”
Waves is about the horrible, and horribly avoidable, consequences of tough love and good intentions – and life’s capacity to somehow salve and fill the emptiness that follows. It throbs with the energy of 21st century youth – for one thing, its tremendous jukebox soundtrack, a zesty counterpoint to the solemn Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score, is full of the kind of sun-kissed pop and R&B that someone my age could only get away with listening to in the context of a film.
The Miami setting, and a shot of Tyler and Alexis embracing in the surf, may remind some viewers of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Yet Waves’ true kindred spirits are the lush suburban melodramas of the 1950s, where tragic irony lurked in every dresser drawer and every heart was pinned to someone else’s sleeve. These days, such emotional directness is unfashionable, and the clash of music and feeling in some sequences may strike contemporary audiences as overdone – a charge often levelled at the great Hollywood melodramatists Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk in their day.
The writer and director of Waves is Trey Edward Shults, a gifted 31-year-old Texan whose last film was the far more guarded and opaque survival horror It Comes At Night. But this is a story to be told with big gestures, and his camera’s dazzling manoeuvres and outright infatuation with his talented cast invests the fairly straightforward story with the thrill and ache of oncoming adulthood.
While training hard for a wrestling tournament, Tyler tears a muscle in his shoulder, but carries on against his doctor’s advice, perhaps mindful of the mantra barked by his coach: “There are no second chances! There are no second acts!” As his injury worsens and his hopes of a scholarship vanish, though, an increasingly bleak second act does in fact unfold. There is a brief, telling sequence in which Tyler drives past a convenience store and sees a young black man on his knees outside being frisked by police. The only thing separating the two of them is opportunity, and Tyler is painfully aware of it.
But second acts can be followed by a third – and after Waves peaks dramatically, it shape-shifts, turning its attentions to Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), and her romance with an endearingly sheepish classmate (Lucas Hedges). Her story serves as a cosmic answer to her brother’s; the film’s two halves moving in counterpoint like the push and pull of an unseen tide.
Showy and ambitious, desperately sincere and self-absorbed, and bursting at the seams with potential, Waves isn’t merely a film about teenagers, it’s virtually a teenager in film form. It’s also the kind of cinema that keeps you young.