Film review "Waves": What can a family take?

You won’t get a bigger emotional cinema than “Waves” on the screen anytime soon. Trey Edward Shults’ family drama can be seen in German cinemas this week.


Trey Edward Shults makes films that you don’t just see, but that you live through. Attacking you physically. And which, no matter how you feel about their content, you leave at least for a short moment changed. In his debut “Krisha” (2015), he showed the dramatic relapse of a drug-addicted older woman. A life in permanent sensory overload until it collapses. His second film, the end-time horror “It Comes At Night” (2017), caused a family to go insane during the epidemic isolation. Thematically, both films had one thing in common: they showed the family as a healing force, but also as a destructive prison. Shults’ new work starts again at this point.

“Waves” plunges into the life of an African-American family in Florida. The teenage son, Tyler, a charismatic sports cannon. His father was a civil engineer. Discipline is the order of the day. The testosterone just before boiling over. Everything seems perfect, but of course it will be different: it starts with a sports injury. Tyler numbs his pain with pills. And then there is his girlfriend who suddenly tells him that she is expecting a child from him. The family is constantly moving towards the abyss.

Audiovisually overwhelming

Shults shows this downward spiral with a tremendous sense of rhythm. “Waves” is a film that is difficult to approach intellectually at first, but that first of all wants to be experienced sensually. So far so good! He succeeds. At least in the first half. The film rushes – to stay with the title – like a wave over you. A loud, absorbing carpet of sound, a brute song passes into the next. The escalation is happening to Kanye West. Life a single music video.

Gaudy color filters lie over the pictures. The camera in constant wobble, twirling and turning. Always right in the middle of the action. At least that’s what the former Terrence Malick intern learned from his former mentor! Generally one thinks of many other filmmakers who were obviously the godfather. But Shults’ immersive high-gloss aesthetics also has its own recognition value! This can be called complacent, but this exuberant stylization also proves to be an extremely skillful projection of the emotional world of the main character. It is difficult not to be carried away by this pull.

The director was criticized by some sides that he would take over the black reality of life as a white filmmaker. But here there is neither condemnation nor an uplifting explanation. Rather, the strength of this family drama lies precisely in the fact that it opens up in so many ways. It shows the burden of social pressure, bourgeois illusion and masculine rituals. Precisely because the family has to deal with discrimination. Because she can’t afford to be just average, as the film says.

And yet the film ignores skin colors, in a way undermines visual expectations, because a whole generation of young people can generally be found in this pressure to perform. No film has made this experience so intense lately. The first half of “Waves” is a terribly intense cinema experience. At this point, the signs are all on masterpiece, if the perspective were not subsequently shifted.

Two films in one

Where the first half of the film consistently increases the anxiety to the climax, even optically narrowing the picture format until there is only a small viewing window, the standstill follows. After that, a whole new film begins again, including a new main character that has almost been forgotten.

Such a detailed change of perspective about the aftermath of a disaster is rare in the cinema. For good reason! Just as the family can no longer get up afterwards, the film hardly catches anymore. The last hour is an extremely tough one because the exhaustion is too great. Of course, there are strong moments there too. For example, the debates between parents and between father and daughter. The narrative only leads to simple knowledge.

An endless loop

So why suffer an hour longer when everything is said? Why expand the figure staff only to head for even more grief and blows of fate? Because bad things happen in all families? And because reconciliation is all the more important? It really wouldn’t have taken more than two hours of film to do that. Also because the turning away from the men towards the women who have been in the background so far is too inconsistent.

Shults’ drama is wild, demanding, aggressive in its first act. Pathetic, but rarely maudlin. That cannot be said of the further course of history. “Waves” is depressed by its own tearful wave of emotions. How Shults tries to drag himself and his characters back to the light and gasp for breath gets lost in somewhat generic indie film clichés until all the characters just want to hug. Perhaps this is too conceptual in its narrative structure. And maybe a filmmaker also forgets that the effect is sometimes greatest if you simply stay under water at the end.

“Waves” has been running in German cinemas since July 16.

Image source:

  • waves: Universal Pictures


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