Waves is a complicated and untraditional work, but at the same time, it left me hoping for more depth. I should say now that this review is riddled with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it I highly encourage doing so as the film unfolds in a unique and unexpected way.
So the essential plot of this film is that a suburban family copes with the oldest son, Tyler, murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Alexis. There are two halves to this film: the first, detailing Tyler’s downwards spiral that leads him to being sentenced to life in prison, and the second showing the family (namely his sister Emily) coping with the effects of the first half.
To begin with the things I liked about the film, I think it’s very well-made. The camerawork specifically at times pulls off these fluid movements that really accentuate the action of the movie. The cinematography made me personally reflect on the the unique options a lot of films just don’t take a risk on in the way Waves does. The soundtrack to the movie is also used in an interesting, borderline Baby Driver kind of way–however, a few tracks were some of my favorite songs and did take me slightly out of the movie, though I guess that’s a me problem (just an example, I found myself chuckling at the use of “IFHY” by Tyler, The Creator as Tyler punches a hole in his wall out of rage…Tyler, The Creator’s music has such a sense of humor to it for me it just really didn’t match the intended effect). Using contemporary music simultaneously allows for a special kind of relation to this work for audiences and puts a time-stamp on the piece in a meaningful way, so ultimately I place this artistic choice as a net-positive on my experience.
The structure of this film is unique. It is composed of two halves when I didn’t know it would be two halves, thus leaving me waiting after the climax of the first half for the film to end–I thought I was watching a prologue. And it’s clear why I felt the structure to be jarring; these two halves are like two different movies. I couldn’t help thinking as I left that theater that this movie felt like the result of a filmmaker wanting to make a sequel (or even a trilogy) of films, but could only make one. The style of the first is heavily contrasted by the second, and yet overall I do think it could have worked. I understand this choice as the focus and tone of the story really shifts, but in the end it didn’t all come together for me due to a disparity of depth in the two halves.
The first half, to be honest (and a little mean), was like a stylized after-school special. “The popular, handsome star athlete gets an injury that puts him out of his identity-defining sport so he turns to his dad’s painkillers and alcohol and also his girlfriend gets pregnant and wants to keep her baby so they break up and in an alcohol and drug-fueled rage he kills her at a prom-adjacent after-party.” I have no issue at all with this story being told (and honestly, I’m still trying to diagnose how much I oppose this half because he’s a highly masculine athlete). I think adding depth to cliché concepts like this one (as much as it makes me feel like a bad person to say this tragedy is a cliché) is a totally worthwhile effort. The issue here is that I feel like I never really got inside Tyler’s head; there’s nothing especially dynamic going on character-wise. It felt pretty surface level and I found myself feeling very little for him.
Cue the next half of the film, as Emily finds a way to escape the alienation her brother caused and the family as a whole tries to reunite. Again, maybe I just relate more to the quieter Emily, but this half had so much more going on, emotionally. (Which doesn’t make sense due to all that’s happening in Tyler’s story!) I felt like the overall performances were better and the plot took more intriguing turns in this part. (I also have to mention that Lucas Hedges is now exonerated from my previous contempt, between his role in this section of this film and Honey Boy.)
Waves is a good, interesting film. Maybe my issues with it are just a negative interpretation of artistic choices, but at the end of the day I personally felt it was a beautiful but slightly lop-sided film.