2019 was a truly exceptional year for cinema. Parasite, Joker, 1917, Knives Out, Little Women and Jojo Rabbit were among the features on the lips of film fans and critics the world over, but those final pre-pandemic months proved something of a purple patch for independent movies, too.
Titles distributed by commercial favourite A24 were particularly popular, and nestled alongside the studio’s star-studded offerings – specifically Uncut Gems, Midsommar and The Lighthouse – was Trey Edward Shults’ underappreciated family drama Waves, which is currently streaming on Netflix in the UK until June 17, 2022.
Before the film returns to relative obscurity, then, we thought we’d take a moment to give Waves its long-overdue moment in the sun, and remind you of the dwindling opportunity to catch one of recent cinema’s true hidden gems.
Let’s kick off with a brief plot summary: Waves is, quite literally, a film of two halves. A then-and-now narrative focuses first on the plight of angsty teen Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a promising athlete who struggles to navigate the pressures of young love, high school and his father’s overbearing eye. Proceedings then switch to the perspective of Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who is left to cope with the repercussions of events (read: bad things) that unfold in the opening 60 minutes.
Beyond its relatively predictable domestic story, though, Waves places equal emphasis on being a sensory experience, one driven by hypnotic visuals and a dazzling soundtrack (Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Radiohead all feature) that drops you straight in the deep end of one family’s struggle to deal with pain and loss in suburban America.
In fact, we’d go so far as to describe Waves as an unofficial companion piece to Euphoria – and not just because actress Alexa Demie stars as a near-identical character in both (but more on that later). To get a quick sense of the movie’s style, check out its trailer below:
Now writing with our pretentious movie critic hat on, director Shults’ splicing of the film works to highlight both the lasting effects of tragedy and the imperfect, but ultimately restorative, nature of family – which is to say that Waves is a very sad movie. And we're not just talking The Notebook sad.
But its two-part structure also gives equal stage to two young actors whose future success is all but assured. Harrison is mesmeric as Tyler, the gifted teen wrestler whose unashamed confidence crumbles before our eyes, while Russell adds an unnerving vulnerability as the recipient of Lucas Hedges’ awkward affections.
Both lead actors have since gone on to feature in movie’s helmed by some of Hollywood’s biggest directors – Harrison in Joe Wright’s Cyrano and Russell in Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming project, Bones and All – and it’s not hard to see why Waves propelled their respective careers.
The pair aren’t the only cast members worthy of plaudits, mind you. Waves may be a film about the tripwires of youth, but it's as much concerned with parental responses to turmoil as the experiences of the teens themselves.
As Tyler’s father, double Emmy Award-winner Sterling K. Brown treads the emotional tightrope of pushing a little too hard for your child’s success; his commitment to ensuring his family seize the opportunities afforded to them results in moments of explosive tension between characters who seem to love and loathe each other simultaneously.
The performances in Waves, then, are undeniably electric – but it’s the film’s unique blend of music and colour that (quite literally) lights up the screen. There’s something inherently photographic about Waves. Often, it feels akin to a series of ultra-high definition stills that, themselves, could just as easily capture the tide of troubled youth and familial unrest without the knockout performances that complement the dreamy visuals.
It says something of a film’s quality when its best moments come when characters and camera are at their most motionless, when raw emotions are laid bare in a single look or hug that lingers long after the quietude is disrupted. Waves takes obvious inspiration from Moonlight in this way – the latter’s baptism scene proves a particularly apt comparison – by combining an eye-popping colour palette with polished cinematography to provide several moments that demand you simply sit and appreciate the artistry on screen.
And like HBO’s Euphoria, Waves also manages to set itself apart through a soundtrack that goes toe-to-toe with its hallucinogenic camerawork. On top of an understated but suitably-trippy score from Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor (Oscar winners for their work on The Social Network), Waves delves into an extensive catalogue of contemporary tracks that propel scenes from moving to downright soul-stirring.
Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator and others lend their talents to Waves’ story of love and loss, but it’s the songs of Frank Ocean, Kanye West and Radiohead, in particular, that elevate the film’s most poignant moments.
Ocean’s Blonde track-list sets the pace for Emily’s journey from isolation to intimacy, while Kanye’s I am a God punctuates Tyler’s crazed drink driving sequence with such intensity as to convince the viewer of their own intoxication. The penultimate sequence, set to the bittersweet melody of Thom Yorke’s True Love Waits, is a punch to the gut that will move even the hardiest of moviegoers.
Evidently (for this writer, at least), it’s difficult to talk about Waves without straying into hyperbole, but it really does manage to walk a line between sensitivity and brazen emotional intensity without ever falling victim to the clichés so often seen in many of its character-drama contemporaries.
“A moving portrait of a broken family and a vibrant feast for the senses,” would be our poster-quote assessment of Shults’ indie masterpiece, and although Waves didn’t achieve anything close to Moonlight’s Oscars glory, it deserves to be considered as more than just a drop in the ocean.
The film leaves Netflix June 17 – so you’ve still got time to become an insufferable trumpeter of its hidden gem status.