An iPhone vibration is an air raid siren in the film "Waves," and a teen girl’s neon fingernails light up a dusky Florida sky like 10 flare guns. The world is just sound, color, pain, pleasure. And each one feels the same.
Director Trey Edward Shults’ latest film, he told an Austin Film Festival audience at the Paramount Theatre in October, is an "subjective, immersive experience." The man knows what he’s made. It’s a cousin to works like HBO’s "Euphoria" and Bo Burnham’s "Eighth Grade," harrowing tube rides into teenage lives that glow and hum as much as they devastate.
All hail the new cinema of kids in trouble.
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"Waves," which opens in Austin theaters this weekend, is an exquisite machine. Odd in structure and idiosyncratic in style, it would be a shame to spoil too much of Shults’ invention. What you need to know: Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a popular and talented African American kid in suburban Florida, just as good at wrestling as he is on the piano. His sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), is quiet and fiercely kind. He’ll tell his mother (Renée Elise Goldsberry) what’s going on, but he’s tight-lipped around his dynamic, hard-driving father (Sterling K. Brown). Mostly, he cares about his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), a teenager pulsing with life.
Starting with a shoulder injury, the bricks of Tyler’s world start to crack, too fast for him (and a steady rush of grade-A teenage emotions and hormones) to keep up. When the last brick turns to powder and he thinks his whole life has toppled, a night of dread turns to unthinkable tragedy. And then Emily, isolated in the grief that follows, is left to find her way back to the world.
The plot of "Waves" is best experienced like the title suggests: washing over you. Shults knows that sound and color are emotional vessels — if you didn’t get the note through 2 hours and 15 minutes of movie, he plays Alabama Shakes’ "Sound and Color" over the end credits — and that’s the language of "Waves." A score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (also currently of HBO’s excellently weird "Watchmen") distorts and unnerves. Everyday noises have supernatural power: a seatbelt beep taunts Tyler like a demon. The sound of tearing ligaments is ghostly. The ocean drowns anything else out. When Emily rides her bike in the opening shot, her breath is all alone.
You’ve never seen such color, either. The water carries sapphires, the trees grow emeralds and the police lights stain everything with blood. In moments of transition, Shults cuts away from the real world and into pulsing gradients. The screen is a mood ring.
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"Waves" would not be what it is without its motion, either. Cinematographer Drew Daniels follows the movie’s teenagers from behind, at a distance, in long tracking shots. The camera frequently spins in extended 360-degree swivels. An early scene of Tyler and Alexis driving across a bridge is terrifying and exhilarating (the first of many incredibly stressful car scenes). They scream song lyrics at each other and kiss while you lose sight of the road ahead, just like them.
All of these technical strokes are meant to put you into the kids’ heads, Shults said in a post-film Q&A at AFF. It is impossible not to drift into yourself while watching. An estranged father with cancer becomes a mirror into your own regrets. Dialogue becomes your own echo chamber. A doctor tells Tyler about his shoulder, "You’re young, and you’ll heal well, but it’s gonna take time." But really, couldn’t that be about what needs healing in you?
Shults’ gears would fail without the performances of Harrison and Russell. Both are intuitive and restrained, doing work with their faces and postures that words can’t. Brown and Goldsberry are anchors; the latter in particular cries like it’s an Olympic sport and she’s got gold.
Don’t sleep on Lucas Hedges, either. The Oscar nominee plays Luke, a teammate of Tyler and love interest of Emily whose levity and soul make the dark parts sing.
And with song, Shults does a lot — the most, and sometimes perhaps a tad too much. Music is important to Tyler, Alexis and Emily, so it’s important to "Waves," too. It’s a strong mixtape: Kendrick Lamar, SZA, Tame Impala, Amy Winehouse, Chance the Rapper, Animal Collective. So many Frank Ocean songs are in this thing that he should get a SAG membership card. The cues can on the nose. For a breakup, Winehouse’s "Love Is a Losing Game." For an anger-fueled rampage, Kanye West’s "I Am a God." That kind of literalism is probably true to teenage feelings. When they’re all stacked into a playlist, it can feel obvious.
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The film’s not easy. A shot of a young girl’s brutalized body is wrenching but runs the risk of turning her character into an emotional beat in a boy’s story. The way the film handles race is a puzzle. "We are not afforded the luxury of being average," Tyler’s father tells him at one point. An interaction between Tyler and the police, though, is abstracted.
Shults is white, telling the story of an upper-middle-class black family. He stressed the collaboration with his predominantly black cast, particularly Harrison, during the post-film Q&A; Shults is the only credited writer on the film.
The characters played by Harrison and Hedges, who is white, react to trauma in radically different ways when it comes to violence. Their respective narrative roles — destruction and healing — begin to feel uncomfortable, given the reality of race in America.
For the answers it can’t provide, the impeccably made "Waves" does create empathy. It’s there in cross-state drives to visit abusive fathers who are dying. It’s there every time one character holds another, sinners but sobbing all the same. Hatred stirs up strife, goes the Bible verse quoted by Brown toward the end of the movie, but love covers up all offenses.