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Waves’ Uses Bold, Fresh Cinematic Language

Indie director Trey Edward Shults delivers visual poetry

Photo credit: A24

Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is the focus of the first half of Trey Edward Shults' "Waves."

Companion viewing

"Krisha" (2015)

"It Comes At Night" (2017)

"The Lighthouse" (2019)

This is the time of year when Hollywood studios serve up their Oscar hopefuls. But a small indie film called "Waves" outshines most of these bigger releases.

"Waves" comes to life on screen with the steady breath of a young girl riding a bike and announces itself as a vibrant piece of cinema.

Listen to this story by Beth Accomando.

A dynamic soundtrack sets the film in motion as oversaturated, dizzying images from cinematographer Drew Daniels and colorist Damien Van Der Cruyssen convey a ravenous energy that drives us forward into the lives of the characters. And orchestrating sound, image and the performances is director Trey Edward Shults.

Shults grabbed my attention two years ago for his film "It Comes At Night," an unconventional horror film that was poorly served by its misleading ad campaign. But on that film, Shults met actor Kelvin Harrison, Jr. who helped him flesh out the character of Tyler Williams for what would ultimately be "Waves."

"Waves" looks to the upper-middle-class south Florida Williams family — high school senior Tyler (Harrison) who has a bright future; his sister Emily (Taylor Russel); his demanding but well-intentioned father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown); and his loving mom Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). The film opens with Tyler on top of the world. The camera can't seem to keep pace with him as it takes us through his classrooms, wrestling practice, family life and love interest. The camera spins and tracks as we take in the details of his world. But the pace and intensity of the film pick up and build to a crescendo that leads to tragedy, and then the tone and focus abruptly shift to Tyler's sister. If the first half of the film is about crashing and burning, the second half is about healing.

The film takes us on a journey as the Williams experience loss and tragedy and then try to move toward forgiveness and rebuilding. It’s a familiar story yet it's told in a bold, fresh cinematic language. The film eschews a conventional narrative in favor of sweeping you up in emotional waves, first violent and then soothing, that define the characters and determine their fates.

Photo credit: A24

Trey Edward Shults directs Sterling K. Brown on the set of "Waves."

At a time when much of Hollywood's award hopefuls feel familiar in their storytelling formula, it's so refreshing to find films like "Waves" and the upcoming "A Hidden Life" from Terrence Malick that speak in an audaciously cinematic language that is pure visual poetry. And I was delighted to discover that Shults had actually interned for Malick, apparently, he was paying attention on the set and learned something from the visionary director.

As with his contemporaries Robert Eggers ("The Witch," "The Lighthouse") and Ari Aster ("Hereditary," "Midsommar"), he is one of a new generation of filmmakers that is showing great care in crafting his films. As with this year's "The Lighthouse," "Waves" plays with aspect ratio to heighten tension. As Tyler's world and options narrow so too does the film's aspect ratio thus emphasizing how he feels.

And I need to mention Van Der Cruyssen again as the film's colorist. He also worked on "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" and "Uncut Gems." I always knew that there were people in the labs who timed the color on prints but with the potential of the digital realm I had not really considered the role of a colorist until I saw "Waves" and Van Der Cruyssen credited in the opening titles as colorist. But this film has colors so saturated and rich that they feel like ripe fruit ready to drip off the screen during Tyler's half of the film and then they grow more muted as we transition to Emily's half of the film.

But kudos to Shults for keeping all the elements in service of the story and using all the state-of-the-art technology not as gimmicks but as artistic tools. I loved the look and feel of "It Comes at Night" with its sense of dread and fear of the unknown. But that film, like "Waves," is ultimately about complex family dynamics and with themes of love and loss.

If you love cinematic poetry then "Waves" is exactly the film for you.

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Photo of Beth Accomando

Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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