I can understand Waves at a conceptual level, but try as I might, I can’t take to its concrete, finished form. Beyond the audaciousness of slamming us right into the high-maintenance world of high school wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the various methods Shults employs to depict his demanding routine, secretive love life, and eventual breakdown—whether they be quick and flashy tracking shots, percussive edits or scenes soundtracked to R&B/alternative artists like Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, Kendrick Lamar and Radiohead—all feel like obtrusive gimmicks meant to simulate (but not authentically represent) the “modern teen experience” as seen in popular network shows like Euphoria and Riverdale. And that’s not even broaching the fact that Shults is white and this narrative is predominantly black—that in itself is already quite the presumption on his part, which he makes no effort to contend with. In fact, rather than contending with it, he overcompensates with a sensorial bluster that numbs you when it should be bringing you closer to the story’s fore. A few times it does work in scenes of intense emotion, for such intensity can be benefited by a similarly intense mise-en-scène. But frequently Shults’ fireworks fizzle out in terms of impact, trying to build the film to its catastrophic climax when it ricochets out of the starting gate at virtually the same speed to begin with. And so its momentum is compromised from the get-go, and while it’s true that the events barrel towards disaster anyway, there is no satisfaction from the result because it’s not done artfully.
Perhaps mindful that his unfettered approach would be deeply polarizing, Shults chooses to slow himself in the second half, when the perspective switches to Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). This part of the film is less eventful and more spiritual in nature, dealing as it does with questions of forgiveness and the way we cope in the face of great pain and struggle. It also introduces an unexpected balm in Lucas Hedges, who plays a kindly and awkward jock who befriends Emily in her time of need. Hedges is, I think, best suited for these kinds of endearing supporting characters, and after the intensity of Tyler’s section, my audience clearly felt that his presence was welcome—and even necessary (I agree with them). My difficulty in embracing this section has more to do with how little Emily factors into Tyler’s section, where she exists almost as an afterthought. It is thus harder to connect closely with her POV when it comes time for her to take the lead role, as much as Russell finds many grace notes in her depiction of the character. Then, there is also the simple fact that the sudden halt in the film’s already imperfect momentum is keenly felt. Shults doesn’t ease us from one section to the other in a way that can hold our interest for long (the most he does is change the aspect ratio, which doesn’t achieve much of anything). There’s no way to disguise the fact that Emily’s section is nothing more than a protracted coda, and while its presence is welcome after the vicious onslaught of the first act, it’s also something that further imbalances Shults’ project.
It’s easy to apprehend Waves’ concept: being burdened with high expectations as a teenager is incredibly demanding, and nothing will end well if those burdens aren’t offset or managed. Further to that, teen life is a veritable mess of raging hormones, heightened tempers and colossal disappointments. I get it—I lived through it. Shults, no doubt, lived through it, too. But to honour it well, one is best served by feeling a smattering of choice frissons than being biffed in the head until concussed. To depict the teen experience today, there needs to be more than sensorial antagonism. There needs to be more than ostentatious stridency and playlists of chart-topping tunes being looped over every slight shift in mood. I know Shults’ heart is in the right place here, and that he cares about his characters. But from the look and feel of this overwrought, over-embellished endeavour, it doesn’t seem that way. It really does come across as Shults wrangling desperately for approval from the younger generations—so much so that is heart is more with his future success than the fictional lives he’s depicting.
Waves received its international premiere at TIFF in the Special Presentations programme on September 10, 2019.