The word synaesthesia refers to a trait in which a person experiences merged senses simultaneously — such as hearing colours or seeing sound. It’s the only word I can use to touch on the intensity of the visual and aural experience created in Waves, in which senses merge and envelop you not only into a narrative, but into a completely different outlook. In some of the most sophisticated filmmaking I’ve seen, director Trey Edward Shults steers a course through a family loss of tragic proportions, only to remedy it in a discrete, but interconnected, narrative.
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Release date: August 30, 2019 (Telluride); October 12, 2019 (LFF)
Rating: Not yet rated
The official synopsis is that “Two young couples navigate through the emotional minefield of growing up and falling in love,” but this is unfairly reductionist. I prefer to read Waves as a film of two halves: the first of a brother, then of a sister. Yin and yang. It’s like watching two separate movies, both epic in proportions, so that by the end of the second half you question whether the previous actions took place in the same narrative, so different are they in tone. The titular waves are the effects of one individual’s actions, and suffice to say that they shake the entire family to its core.
Sterling K. Brown plays an intense father, Ronald, a construction worker but also the identifying head of a wealthy family in South Florida. He’s strict, but it’s allegedly because he wants the best for his son, Tyler (a captivating Kelvin Harrison Jr.) The two have a volatile, love-hate relationship — Ronald driving Tyler exceptionally hard, bordering on abusive. Ronald feels the need to justify himself: “I’m not hard on you because I want to be — but because I have to be.” While his wife Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is a loving mother, she can’t stop the breakdown of communication in the household.
They live in comfort in what is almost a mansion, but still it feels stifling. I kept asking myself throughout the film: why can’t Ronald feel any compassion for his son? As it turns out, this same rage plays itself out into the lives of his children. Living almost in the background to this is his daughter Emily (Taylor Russell), on whom the effect of this extreme lifestyle manifests later on.
As the cracks begin to show in their lives, the institutions of church, school, and a comfortable nuclear family come under scrutiny. Gospel music, for example, is a big part of the family’s church-going experience and it is reflected back in the Tyler’s piano playing. As he finishes a piece, he lets the sustain pedal ring out. It’s as if something is missing. In fact, as we see him perform his daily routine, it’s as if he’s living someone else’s life.
But, countering the emotional rift between father and son, close-ups of Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), combined with the score and dynamic camera, is nothing short of euphoric. The ambient sound and colour immerses everything in a solipsistic world. It expresses the intensity of the teenage experience where the lovers are idolised.
The rotating screen feels disorientating: too much sound and colour all at once overwhelms the senses. (This is consciously alluded to in Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color” playing over the end credits.) Yet for all this, I felt on edge throughout the entire first act. After all — they’re just children, barely 18, barely knowing who they might turn into.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that the music was used in a way I’ve never experienced so powerfully in a film before. Composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, a powerhouse duo who penned the Oscar-winning score for The Social Network, it showcased their finest efforts. Throughout much of the opening sequence and first act, thunder in the background underscores intense, dramatic moments.
It’s profoundly moody and engulfing, the waves of the Florida coast crashing around characters, echoing their sound through bedrooms at night. Combined with this sensory rush, the music is captivating: classical arpeggios fuse with hip hop, creating a unique blend of sound effects and melody. It stands in for the gaps when individuals can’t articulate or express themselves.
What struck me was the balance of the film’s two sections. After Tyler’s segment of the film draws to a close, Emily’s unexpectedly, but fluidly, takes on equal weight. I wondered if she might repeat the cycle learned from her family as she develops a relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges), but she turns it into good; something the rest of her family were not able to do before her. Taylor Russell’s performance displays a grace and maturity beyond her years, and watching her character develop into a young woman with her own view of the world undergoing a seismic shift is heartbreaking, and at the same time, the natural way of life.
The true hero and the most loving of the characters, Emily brings to mind the saying: “hate begets hate, but love begets love.” You might go so far as to say that she is the pure and better embodiment of the famous 1 Corinthians scripture read out in church at the beginning ”Love is patient; love is kind.” She has to deal with strong emotions from everyone on every side, yet hers is a redemption story. Though not without its struggles, it’s the antidote needed after an unthinkable family journey.
Everything I’ve heard about Waves seems to be misleading. The fact is that it’s excellent, so much better than the marketing could try to convey. The sensory experience is second to none, and it’s no wonder — following its affecting run at TIFF — that it’s making its own significant impression in London. Waves must undoubtedly be seen on the big screen. The film, and the senses it evokes, are wild. It’s an entire spectrum of heat, colours, vision, emotions — grief, forgiveness, compassion. Nothing is off limits, the entire spectrum of humanity on display.