Waves is a pretty great film, but it’s probably not the one you may have been expecting from the marketing for it. The first trailer (not the second one, which, if you ask me, is more accurate) basically presented it as a standard “emotional” drama, which steered me away from catching it in theaters. Now seeing it at home with my parents (they both wound up disliking it—I can see why, but that doesn’t make that any less unfortunate), I realize that that was kind of a big mistake. Though not perfect throughout, the film is still an incredibly bold, powerful, and utterly unique cinematic experience nevertheless.
This is especially evident in the first half, which pulls us headfirst into the life of Tyler Williams, a popular high school senior who excels at all the wrestling matches he frequently participates in. Tame Impala’s “Be Above It” (just one song on the film’s excellent, if occasionally overbearing, soundtrack) plays over the riveting opening scene to signify the sense of power and freedom he feels from his life, and it seems that nothing can ever touch him.
Nothing, that is, except for the Level 5 tear in his shoulder only he (and his doctor, who doesn’t seem to know to contact the boy’s parents about that) knows about, which he secretly pops his dad’s pain pills for in the hopes that he can keep wrestling, finish the season, and please his ever-domineering father. Unfortunately, that only leads to disaster, and when his girlfriend reveals that she’s pregnant, an escalating series of very bad decisions climax in a truly shocking event that’s far, far darker than anything you may be expecting from this kind of film (another reason to not go in really expecting anything like that trailer).
Afterwards, he fades out of the story and is replaced by his sister, Emily, who tries to deal with the pain and loss resulting from her brother’s actions, ultimately finding hope again in a relationship with a kind schoolmate with personal problems of his own. Much as I loved the fact that this romance was sweet without ever getting schmaltzy or cute, this more quiet and meditative part of the film (which rushes an otherwise touching subplot involving Emily’s boyfriend) just didn’t connect with the incredibly stressful and chaotic first half on any sort of tonal, structural, or even story-related level.
As far as these types of “indie” movies go, though, Waves still manages to rise far higher than most of the pack, particularly since its characters not only felt completely real, but were also people I knew and cared about all the way through. Incredibly, this was even the case when they were doing unforgivably terrible things, which is no easy feat for any film, let alone a “coming-of-age” tale. On a production level, however, Waves is on another level entirely.
This is perhaps the most superbly directed film I have seen out of 2019 (yes, on that level, it even rivals the completely flawless Parasite, despite inexplicably getting ignored by the Academy), with consistently breathtaking shots and camerawork, perfectly timed aspect ratio changes, gorgeous cinematography, and a richly saturated color palette making it an absolute feast for lovers of visual storytelling.
If anything, the fact that Waves does all of that so well makes it even more frustrating. Frustrating because its second half somehow couldn’t have been as consistent and focused as what preceded it, couldn’t have developed some of the other characters more, couldn’t have put more effort into connecting the first half’s earth-shattering events with the second’s themes of forgiveness and unconditional love. If it had done those things, it probably would’ve been a sheer masterpiece. But as for now, it’s just a really, really good movie. And that’s OK.