Opening in a dreamy haze, the camera trails lazily behind a teenage girl on a bicycle, moving through a corridor of trees. Frank Ocean croons in the background as his single ‘Seigfried’ plays and the title appears onscreen, the letters filled with a gentle ocean lapping at sunset.
Waves, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, follows Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a teenager who is set to become a promising wrestler, as one terrible decision changes the course of not only his life, but the lives of those around him. Suffering from a severe shoulder injury, Tyler hides the excruciating pain in fear that it might jeopardise his college wrestling career—a decision which becomes a very unfortunate mistake. He has an on-and-off relationship with his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie) that ultimately becomes his demise and provides the roots for the following conflicts in the film. Waves tackles confronting topics such as racism, abortion, drug abuse and terminal illness in a way that is almost poetic; an ode to the hardships of teenage life.
The soundtrack for Waves was a standout. Frank Ocean, Animal Collective and SZA were among the cluster of artists that featured on this soundtrack-driven movie. It was so clear to see the care with which the music was chosen, each song contributing to its scene without becoming background noise, selected with purpose.
In an interview with HeyUGuys, Shults explains that he had the actors read the screenplay whilst listening to the potential music choices for each scene. This enabled the actors to imagine what the final product would look, feel and sound like. In another interview with The A.V. Club, Shults elaborated on how he even changed Harrison’s hair colour to replicate Frank Ocean’s on the cover of his 2016 Blonde album.
Emphasising Ocean’s talent for capturing “authentic vulnerability” in such a delicate way, Shults discusses how music had such an impact on his own high school experience. This inspired him to create a soundtrack that connected with the current high school generation, as well as one that could construct a narrative by itself, allowing listeners to relive the film through music.
In an early scene, Tyler drives with his stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) as she sings along to ‘What a Difference a Day Makes’ by Dinah Washington. The scene is touching and comforting to watch as this family’s relationship tends to be quite turbulent throughout the film. Shults elaborates on how this is a common theme throughout the movie—the difference one day or even one decision can make. In a film packed with modern musicians, this tie to the past and link between generations is welcomed and becomes a somewhat poignant moment.
The cinematography was noticeably agile and captured the action in new and interesting ways. At the beginning of Waves, Tyler and Alexis drive down the highway with their legs hanging out the window, hair flying everywhere and having the time of their lives. The camera pans around in a circle for a few minutes, highlighting the giddy mood in the scene. The audience is cleverly swept up in this light-hearted and slightly disorientating moment that just exudes summer holiday vibes.
This technique is repeated throughout the film to convey the confusion of the young characters as they grapple with the countless large changes that occur in rapid succession, whilst also being used to emphasise the carefree nature of adolescence and the good, summery times that come along with it. The mobile camera angles are especially noticeable during one of Tyler’s wrestling matches, where the camera tumbles in unison with him, replicating his uncomfortable situation rather than remaining static and filming from a distance. I think that this technique helped the audience to engage on a more personal level with the characters on screen, following their footsteps and viewing the world from their perspective in the moment.
Also notable were the scene transitions, or rather chapter divisions, throughout the film. Utilising a lens flare of some sort, the narrative was broken up by waves of colour that washed over the screen in bright teal, pinks and oranges. It restored a sense of calm in the audience after especially turbulent scenes and drew back to the summer holiday atmosphere that was strung throughout. It was a very clever and artistic way to fluidly transition whilst also giving the audience a chance to breathe.
With another stunning film under their belt, fans of the A24 production group will not be disappointed with Waves. The film has already been touted for numerous Oscar award nominations and it’s not difficult to see why—it’s a heartrending rollercoaster that you don’t want to get off of anytime soon.
Waves is in showing at Luna Palace Cinemas until 22nd July 2020.