NME at TIFF  – ‘Waves’ review: a soul-shattering ode to pain, mistakes and coming of age

Dubbed 'Moonlight meets Euphoria', Trey Edward Shults' wondrous Waves is a profoundly human movie the world deserves to see.

What does pain feel like without the love and contentment that precedes it? How do we come to feel happy without it stemming from a place of melancholy we’re trying to escape from? Life ebbs and flows. It gives us gifts and takes them from us in a seemingly endless exchange. Waves, in all of its devastating and brilliant glory, knows this.

The new film from Trey Edward Shults – the American auteur known best for his second feature It Comes At Night – was shrouded in secrecy before audiences saw it, first at Telluride Film Festival and then at Toronto Film Festival a week later.

It first focuses on Tyler, a studious 18-year-old high schooler growing up in an affluent neighbourhood of South Florida. Everything seems to be going as it should in his life: he’s a vital, winning member of the wrestling team, has a seemingly perfect family unit (a loving step mum, a pushy but proud dad and an attentive little sister), and spends whatever spare time he has with (or texting) his girlfriend; the most beautiful woman in the world. But that bubbling pressure to better himself becomes his achilles heel: a muscle injury forces him to unspool.

With an eerily familiar precision to anyone who’s experienced trauma as a family unit, Shults’ film unpacks the byproducts of collective pain. Its not reliant on its script to sell itself (its most cutting moments of conversation happen via three-dot moments of suspense via iMessage). Instead, all of its elements come together to create a kind of cinematic alchemy.

Cinematographer Drew Daniels gives the film a youthful, optimistic glow or a moody scuzziness when it calls for either one of them, including a masterful use of aspect ratio around the midway point. Meanwhile, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails have produced a complex score to go with it. The music is arguably it is biggest creative asset. Music supervisors Joe Rudge and Meghan Currier have expertly recreated a scintillating Gen-Z mixtape, gathering ‘Yeezus’-era Kanye, Amy Winehouse, Animal Collective and no fewer than five Frank Ocean songs that all arrive in this story at just the right moments.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. occupies the lead role excellently, with a stoicism that unfurls to reveal a confused rage. Alexa Demie – known best for her role as Maddy in the hit HBO show Euphoria – plays Alexis, his girlfriend, who proves herself to be one of the finest young purveyors of Gen Z sass and angst. She’s in her element here.

But halfway through, the film shifts its focus and these characters take a backseat. The second, slower and sweeter part bares allusions to the work of Richard Linklater, and tells the story of Tyler’s younger sister Emily (played by a captivating Taylor Russell) and the boy she falls in love with (Oscar-nominee Lucas Hedges). It’s a sharp change of pace that could throw some people off, but it’s a perfect, necessary accompaniment to what precedes it.

When you step back from Shults’ stunning two-hour film, what you see is a gutting and masterful portrait of family, the mistakes we make and the redemption we seek. It’s a profoundly human cinematic wonder.