Waves Movie Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Can a white director empathize with the reality of black life? The young US filmmaker Trey Edward Shults succeeds: “Waves” is a gripping, culturally unifying story about growing up. Our colleague has also seen “Waves”, but comes to a completely different, rather scathing verdict. Read his review here.

A young girl rides her bike through an American suburban street, a young man races over a highway bridge in Florida with a car full of friends, the music pumps and thumps, the mood is exuberant, the young man stretches his hand out of the window into the wind: freedom, movement, dynamism. The first scenes of “Waves” are as tempestuous as life when it is just beginning and reveals itself in all its wild possibilities.

Leading actor Kevin Harrison Jr. in “Waves”: A dangerous whirlpool lurks beneath the perfect wave.
The camera circles incessantly through the interior of the car in which Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis are having a good time. Tame Impala on the soundtrack brings the right vibes, then it’s seamlessly on to the sports field, through a classroom, back into the car, this time with a whole party clique. Everything is in flow in the first few minutes of “Waves”, the movie rides the perfect wave. La Dolce Vita in Florida, a carefree teenage everyday life as a collage in bright colors, an Instagram feed that has become cinema.

Trey Edward Shults, the 31-year-old director of “Waves”, goes all out with his third film, first visually, but soon also narratively. Because Shults is interested in much more than just translating an intense youth into cinematic intensity. To say that everything in this colorful life goes down the drain at some point would be an understatement. It goes down a whole waterfall, including a very hard crash.

A whirlpool lurks beneath the perfect wave

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is not only good-looking and popular, but also the hope of a wealthy black family. As a professional wrestler, he is supposed to follow in the footsteps of his father, who subjects him to a tough drill in the family gym. Tyler is supposed to work out, “I am a new machine” he and his teammates shout through the gym at the behest of the coach, and gradually one begins to suspect that a maelstrom lurks beneath the perfect wave.

The harbingers of doom have long been in the bodies of Tyler and Alexis. After a CT scan, he is diagnosed with a serious biceps injury that should lead to immediate surgery and a forced break; she learns that she is pregnant. Tyler’s diagnosis leads to despair and denial, while Alexis’ pregnancy leads to uncertainty and difficulty in making decisions – Tyler can’t cope.

The format of the movie changes several times. “Waves” begins in standard cinema format, then switches to Cinemascope, cropped at the top and bottom, and when an act of violence halfway through the running time abruptly changes everything once and for all, the image shrinks even further into a narrow 4:3 format, in which close-ups of Tyler’s panicked face and police sirens now alternate.

Shameless mobilization of cinematic means

This self-confident stylization, this shameless mobilization of cinematic means, as well as the pop soundtrack (with Kanye West and Frank Ocean, among others), are reminiscent of the visual orgies of Xavier Dolan (“Mummy”). First of all, in the best sense: Shults is a go-getter, and as long as his new film pushes forward so uncompromisingly, it is easy to be drawn into this world.

But after a while, the sympathetic impetuosity feels increasingly nasal and false. Shults now goes all out, not only formally but also in terms of content, raising big questions about crime and punishment, guilt and forgiveness. It doesn’t do the movie any good that the dramatic height of the fall becomes immeasurable. All of a sudden, the fate of the characters seems like a means to an end in order to achieve shock and catharsis. The calculation that breaks through here takes away much of the impact of “Waves”.

With the break halfway through the film, it becomes a problem that doesn’t necessarily have to be one: that an up-and-coming white independent director takes over a black world. This story is supposed to be universal, “color-blind” so to speak. But when it comes to toxic masculinity, violence and justice, colorblindness is one of those things. This has become apparent again in recent weeks. The allusions to the racism that Tyler and his family are exposed to seem obligatory and seem to have been included in the film more for the sake of completeness.

Virtuoso staging, banal answers

In the second part of the movie, a beautiful story unfolds about Tyler’s sister Emily and her first great love. But this is mainly down to actress Taylor Russell. She manages to swim free from a movie that otherwise seems to be more interested in itself than in its characters. Its flying camera is more important than what it sees. Which demands more attention for the abrupt change of format at the moment of violence than for the victim of this violence.

Yes, “Waves” vibrates on the screen, looks pretty good, has an appropriately nervous sound design and some terrific actors. But looking back, you can’t shake the feeling that the virtuoso staging also conceals rather banal answers. People make mistakes, and they and others have to live with the consequences. “What a Difference a Day Made” is a central musical leitmotif in this film, but in the end it is also a somewhat unsatisfactory moral of the story.

Entranced by life

The girl on the bike is called Emily (Taylor Russell), but even though “Waves” begins and ends with her, the first half of the film belongs to her older brother Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the blonde-haired black daredevil at the wheel of the car. The gruff hip-hop track “I Am A God” by Kanye West is a song that director Trey Edward Shults echoes again and again. Tyler seems to glide through his youth like a young god: He’s one of the stars of his school’s wrestling team, a professional career is on the horizon, his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demis) is beautiful, the summer in Florida is hot. All signs point to success. But as in West’s song, there is a threat lurking in every image in the scenes that show all this with shimmering, spinning camera movements and fast cuts, a sense that nothing in life runs so smoothly.

“Waves” is the third feature film by 31-year-old Shults. After the psychological drama “Krisha” (2015) and the horror film “It Comes At Night”, he has proven himself to be a talented and courageous director who wants to tell emotional stories in cinema in a hypermodern, pop-culturally expressive way. In an interview, he said that he wanted to depict the performance pressure of young people, which he also experienced in his youth: the incredibly exhausting pursuit of perfection and maximum performance in unreal Instagram stylishness.

Shults was once an intern on the set of Terrence Malick’s “Tree Of Life” and learned from the master of cinematic metaphysics how to spiritually charge screen images, how to show stories about relationships and destinies rather than explain them in dialog. Much of the virtuoso visual language he uses in “Waves” is reminiscent of other neo-expressionists such as Gaspar Noé and Harmony Korine (who even makes a guest appearance here). A scene in which Tyler and Alexis confess their love to each other while standing in the ocean clearly and wantonly quotes Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”.

But unlike Jenkins, Shults is not African-American. The fact that a white Texan would presume to tell a story about the reality of black life was the subject of controversy in the US media at the end of last year. Now, in the midst of the “Black Lives Matter” protests against racism and white police violence, the German release of the film falls into an even more heated atmosphere in terms of identity politics. But can only those who are black themselves tell a story with and about black people? Are those who do not film or write from the perspective of those affected automatically guilty of cultural appropriation and stereotyping? Such questions are also being discussed more vehemently than ever in cinema, an industry in which black artists and their stories have been marginalized and disadvantaged for decades. More sensitivity is being demanded from white artists in particular.

Complicated “racial politics”

But the criticism of Shults comes to nothing. After all, the director did not come up with the character and fate of his black protagonist Tyler on his own, but developed it in months of screenplay sessions together with his actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. In an interview, Shults referred to these meetings as “therapy sessions”, in which the two discussed the similarities and differences between their experiences. Perhaps this even makes “Waves” a rare cultural communication project.

The criticism was also largely positive. Despite this, “Waves” was virtually left empty-handed at the important awards ceremonies last winter – presumably also a result of the complicated “racial politics”, which may have made the film too much of a hot potato for the jurors.

Skin color and politics do not play the leading roles in Shults’ cinema of emotional waves, which follows a more musical flow: The hip-hop tracks by West and Kendrick Lamar are complemented by the tender, touching R&B pop of Frank Ocean, whose stylistically two-part album “Blonde” served like a blueprint for the film, according to Shults – the cinematic equivalent, so to speak, of emo-rap music, which is particularly popular among young people. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (“Watchmen”) composed a sinister, electronically simmering score that heightens the growing tension to unbearable levels.

Because Tyler, the young god, is heading for a crisis. A shoulder injury won’t heal. He desperately steals painkillers from his relentlessly demanding father (Sterling K. Brown), who will not allow his son to show any signs of weakness. When Tyler loses his sunny disposition, the proud self-made man puts him through the socio-political wringer: all his life he has been pushed as a black man, constantly having to achieve more than white people in order to provide himself and his family with a prosperous middle-class existence. Tyler also had to survive in this inhumane program.

When his girlfriend Alexis confesses to him that she is pregnant and wants to keep the child, and then ignores his injury and the pain for so long that he is no longer allowed to compete, Tyler ticks off. A catastrophe ensues that not only permanently derails his life, but also traumatizes his father, mother and sister. The dazzling surface functionality of the model family shatters and reveals abysses.

Emily becomes the family’s wound healer

In the second half of “Waves”, it falls to Emily to fill them with meaning again. Shults stages it as a ballad in quieter images and less gaudy tones. Tentatively and tentatively, the girl embarks on a romance with the equally shy but warm-hearted Luke, whom her brother Tyler had defeated in an earlier wrestling scene.

Together, these two maimed men embark on a road trip to visit Luke’s estranged father, who is dying. It is a journey on which the quiet Emily, of all people, who has always had to subordinate herself to the radiant Tyler, heals her family’s wounds. With her, hope returns that harmony can grow out of disruption and dissonance.

In his unorthodox coming-of-age drama, Shults shows life as a wave movement controlled by fate, an unpredictably dynamic, ideally balancing interplay of positive and negative, healing and destructive forces. The formal power and passion, the sensitivity for images, rhythm, aesthetics and the emotional worlds of the millennial generation are so immediately captivating that “Waves” is forgiven for a few overly broad brushstrokes, overflowing pathos and some shallowness.

USA, 2019
Director and screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Taylor Russell, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Alexa Demie
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Length: 135 minutes
FSK: rated 12 and up

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