The cross is everywhere in Trey Edward Shults’ Waves. It’s on the necklace dangling around the neck of Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Tyler. It’s at the church where the Williams family attends services. It appears in a clustered trio reaching towards the heavens along a roadside in Missouri. But, most crucially, it’s in the film’s final act as Taylor Russell’s Emily reaches a point of graceful gliding on her bike down a Florida road; a fitting moment for a film in which she embodies the Christ-like behaviors of sacrifice and redemptive love.
While time moves in a linear fashion plot-wise in Waves, it’s a film experienced in echoes and pairs. Grace is not a stopping point for the film so much as it’s just a stop on the circle as Shults takes the audience through the lives of a family. Waves charts the path of two Williams siblings, headstrong wrestler Tyler and introverted Emily, as they grapple with the fallout of choices they make as maturing high schoolers and the legacy of decisions made by their fore-bearers. It’s a film anchored in a visceral NOW as Tyler and Emily grapple with the immediacy of their love and anguish in relationships with their bodies, their emotions, their family and their romantic interests. Yet Waves remains fully cognizant of how every moment also contains traces and remnants of what came before.
The present decade is chock full of master filmmakers engaging with religious and spiritual themes in their work, though none have quite resembled what Shults brings forth with Waves. The film possesses neither the mystical inquisitiveness of Terrence Malick nor the institutional rigor of Martin Scorsese. It’s not an extended allegory like Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, nor is it the austere parable of modernity’s perils like Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Shults, as a 30-year-old director, asserts less in the way of certainty — which feels entirely appropriate for the occasion.
As an alternative, Shults embraces the mysteries of the spiritual and ineffable. Waves places an American family in conversation with the cosmos by way of the director’s expressive filmmaking. Shults’ curiosity and ambition as a filmmaker lead him to explore, if not define, how things like sounds and colors connect us to forces larger than ourselves. For a story that engages with tough, thorny questions of redemption and reconciliation, it’s a welcome development to have a filmmaker look upwards, not inwards.
Qualities such as forgiveness and mercy are not particularly native to the flesh, at least not in Waves. They are difficult to achieve because they are less sensations and more of destinations, and ones that the characters can only arrive at through intense emotional labor. To find compassion for those who do nothing to earn it is not so routine that we can logically expect it to come out of conversations or actions. For Shults, this is a force of nature with awe-inspiring power to rewire the world around us. It’s as present as the kaleidoscopic colors that often subsume Waves’ transitions — think the interludes in Punch-Drunk Love — impossible to describe yet simple to let the strange energy influence behavior for those attuned to its wavelength. Emily, this sentiment’s most potent (if not entirely pure) embodiment, appears possessed with a borderline preternatural grace that the film never tries to explain or rationalize. She’s not necessarily a more attentive listener during church services, nor does any line of expository dialogue establish why she might exemplify such empathy.
Emily’s ethereal yet also earthly demeanor provides an example for how to move on beyond the familial trauma that provides much of Waves’ tension. Early on, family patriarch Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) gives his son Tyler a talk that has occurred in the homes of black Americans far too many times: “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.” Tyler must be excellent to even have a chance in a country looking for any reason to write him off. To put it bluntly, he’s denied his full humanity in his inability to have flaws, make mistakes and learn from them like his white counterparts. It’s this struggle for perfection that, paradoxically, sets off a series of events that brings him in line with the mundane — addiction, violence, spite, estrangement.
When Waves becomes almost unbearably intense, Shults takes a step back from Tyler’s troubles and situates him within a larger frame of reference. This promising teenager fallen from abundance has now become something quite mundane. A quest for the borderline superhuman brings him in touch with the average. The stories of substance abusers and destructive family members touches nearly everyone in the film. Emily’s biological mom overdosed, viewers learn. Her boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges) has grown apart, both physical and emotionally, from his abusive father to the point of indifference when learning he’s been diagnosed with cancer. Each unleash a tsunami of damage in the lives of the people they love. The waves continue cresting and crashing along an eroded emotional shore — recovery, relapse.
So how do we move on from a past that won’t let us go? How do we break the vicious cycles of cruelty passed down both in our DNA and in our behavior towards others? Waves is a testament to the power of liberating grace to disrupt human fallibility with otherworldly sacrifice. Shults depicts forgiveness as a verb, not a noun. Emily shines as a beacon of hope in the darkest hours of Waves because she manifests love when it’s merited least — because that’s when it is needed most. She provides a path to reunion in a world torn apart, and her presence dominating the film’s back half lends it an unexpectedly buoyant quality.
Early articles about Waves’ production reported that Shults’ third film would be a musical. It most assuredly is not, at least not in a traditional sense. Don’t expect to see characters singing anything other Kendrick Lamar’s “Backstreet Freestyle” as a campfire chant. Yet the more time I’ve let Waves wash over me, the more I realize that maybe it does have some shared DNA with the genre. The conventions of the musical dictate that when a moment becomes too intense to convey through normal dialogue, characters break into song and dance as a form of heightened communication. Shults’ expressionistic filmmaking brings sound and image to such vibrant life that perhaps it is a musical — it’s just that the camera and soundtrack, not any characters, are the entities that break free of traditional presentation.
A typical way to describe a film like Waves would be to say that it has the power to reach inside a viewer’s body, grab their heart and make it beat at the filmmaker’s desired pulse. Yet it feels like Shults has created a film that is its own organic being with eyes, ears and a rapidly beating heart. The frenetic yet controlled camerawork, the result of another collaboration with cinematographer Drew Daniels, makes unease palpable with its frequent spins in dizzying circles. (Shults knows his way around a whip pan like no one else this side of late 1990s Paul Thomas Anderson.) By contrast, it also features moments of stillness and quietude that much more impactful. Coursing through the film’s veins is a steady stream of Spotify standard songs whose licensing must have eaten away at the budget.
These tunes are more than just the physiological effect they exert on an audience. As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku once stated, “Music is the voice of God traveling through ten-dimensional hyperspace.” In Waves, at least, the statement holds some water as people find hope rather than doom through the memory of a melody. According to Emily, hearing the song “What a Difference a Day Makes” in a diner takes her out of the present moment and brings her back in tune with her grandparents, who used to dance to it. Music provides a key mechanism by which the characters experience generational joy (rather than inherited trauma) — something divine to connect people.
“It will take a village to bring us back together as a country,” opines a preacher during Waves’ opening act. By the time the movie ends, however, it becomes clear that maybe it only takes one person. Not The One, as Christians might believe — just one person who represents a self-sacrificing bridge to restoration and exudes the purifying love that the cross represents to them.
Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).