waves 2019 movie still - Alexis and Tyler - cultural hater movie analysis

Film Analysis: Waves (2019)

Waves (2019) is a gorgeously filmed feature, and its dynamic narrative will surely gain a cult following among the A24 fans. However I can’t help, but feel that Trey Edward Shults had a better film on plate, but some risky narrative choices diminished its end value.

I can see why Trey Edward Shults titled his film Waves (2019).

His film underlines the fleeting nature of emotions, of how they come and go – like a tide. Whether it’s love, anger or hatred, they all blend together and none of those remains forever. There’s also a second interpretation of the title, also fitting for Shult’s film. When the sea gets stormy, waves bring destruction. In the case of the family we meet in Waves (2019), the latter interpretation feels even closer.

That’s just a preview of how Waves (2019) is interpreted in this article. Before I delve into those theories, let’s recap the plot first.

Waves (2019) Film Summary

kelvin Harrison in waves 2019 - a film by trey Edwards Shults

Waves (2019) tells a story of a suburban, well-situated family of four – two siblings Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and Emily (Taylor Russell), and their parents, Catherine (Renee Elise Goldsberry) and Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). Seemingly ideal and successful, the family begins to rot from the inside, when father’s expectations begin to weigh on Tyler’s shoulders, and the tension between the two casts a shadow on everyone else’s lives, including Tyler’s girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie).

When a tragedy hits the very foundations of this African-American family, Trey Edward Shults begins his vivisection of coping with grief and understanding the hurdles of forgiveness.

Waves (2019) – Plot and Characters Analysis

A family disintegrated

waves 2019 film still

Trey Edward Shult’s last undertaking was a dire horror film It Comes At Night (2017). In spite of its dragged-out plot, Shults explored an interesting angle of a family disintegration process, caused by a growingly disturbing relationship of a father and his son (frankly, also played by Kelvin Harisson Jr.).

Shults reopens the case of the dominant father in Waves (2019), however this time, the relationship serves as a take-off for the drama – and not the drama itself.

Much of Tyler’s emotional radiation is subliminal, happening outside of the narrative. There’s no need to witness many clashes between Ronald and Tyler, thus the several moments we get are enough. The tension is there, even if Sterling K. Brown as Ronald has little screen-time to make a long-lasting impact. Shults positions Ronald similarly to how Mahershala Ali’s Juan was in Moonlight (2016). Brown too appears as the father figure, which shapes the protagonist, but is not given much time to shine on his own.

By the time we get to know the two, the friction between Ronald and Tyler lights a fire in the latter’s heart, a light of confusion mixed with frustration. However, once the spiral begins its spin, there’s no way to stop it. Ronald’s unable to break through the walls built by Tyler, meanwhile Tyler – dazed by the dramatic revelation of Alexis, his girlfriend – can’t find the common language with the father.

This dynamic between Ronald and Tyler constitutes the axis of most of the plot in Waves (2019). Their growing conflict finds an utterly dramatic conclusion, after which Shults further explores how the family is broken and unable to heal.

Tyler, the protagonist of Waves (2019)

tyler in waves 2019 - played by kelvin Harrison

From the start, Shults pays attention to the character development of Tyler. Being the cool kid on the block, a sportsman-type macho that makes teenage hearts race faster, he hides anger, built upon the river of negativity streamlined by his father. Tyler’s the wave that comes with the force of a tsunami; once unleashed, nothing but wreckage and debris remains left.

If Tyler’s only side was the pure anger, Shults would have directed with absolutes, leaving no space for interpretation. Thankfully, Tyler isn’t just a pissed-off teenager. On the contrary, there are layers to his frustration, and the hit-the-bottom state comes round gradually. One very interesting catch was to take away Tyler’s fitness, and turn a medical injury into a metaphorical sign that something is wrong with him. The bodily damage reflects the boy’s inability to cope with the stress, and the way he’s burdened with high expectations. It’s also a tremendous performance delivered by Kelvin Harrison Jr. that lets this character reverberate.

The crushing wave metaphor in Waves (2019)

Katsushika Hokusai, Edo period, Japanese painting

More than half-way through Waves (2019), Trey Edward Shults reaches an end to his crescendo. The volcanic eruption finally arrives, and comes wrapped in the pulsating song of Kanye West I Am A God, along with the lush, neon-night cinematography. By the time it ends, Shults had me in the palm of his hand. Quite honestly, if that was the film’s conclusion, I’d be left wanting more, however still fulfilled too.

Shults decides to cross one more bridge, and swaps Tyler with Emily as the protagonist. That’s a risky endeavor, in which Shults fiddles with the tone, pacing, and even the audiovisual tone of Waves (2019). Taylor Russell, Tyler’s sister who remains in the shadow of the whole family, takes over, joining forces with Lucas Hedges. The two embark on another emotional journey, but there’s a thick line of contrast between these two narratives.

That’s how Trey Edward Shults designs the ultimate metaphor of the crushing wave in Waves (2019).

I imagine the family as a beautiful, by-the-sea mansion. The rising tension between Tyler and Ronald could be viewed as the storm coming towards that house. Ronald is the wind blowing, which causes the sea (Tyler) to get angry, and unpredictable. At some point, the first, most aggressive and destructive wave arrives. The house only seemed to have solid foundations, because that one wave of emotional tsunami almost sweeps it off the surface.

After that untamed force, comes the grief. The house is gone, but Emily wishes to rebuild it. In order to do that, she needs to find her own strength, the calmer side of the sea. The embodiment of that new, more sentient tide is the character played by Lucas Hedges. Their mutual understanding becomes the reason why the house can eventually rise to existence again.

Emily, the bridge of the family

Taylor Russell in waves 2019

Cunning is the way Shults swaps the siblings as protagonists. When Emily, the shy one in the family, takes over the weight of the film in its last half an hour, Waves (2019) calms its angry river. From her point of view, the events unravel more sensitively, and the script tenderly handles her part with a less frantic narrative style.

Thanks to Taylor Russell, Emily becomes a powerful counter-argument for Kelvin Harrison’s role. The actress captures the fragile nature of a girl who plays the fifth wheel role in her own family. As she emerges from the shadows as their savior, Russell’s tenderness paints a poetic contrast between the introvert sister and star-boy brother. By no means is Emily a shrinking violet, despite a set of less sharp character traits that describe her. Within that gentle role lies the fulfillment of the metaphor that Shults canvasses – the come-and-go nature of life, and the circle of life that her character completes.

Furthermore, Shults smartly adds the character played by Lucas Hedges, a guy whom Emily meets at school. In a less skillfully written story, this boy would become a “white savior” of sorts, pulling the African-American girl out of misery. In fact, the director admitted it was a challenge when working on Hedges’ role in Waves (2019). Shults, being white himself, had to be cautious about working with that savior element.

This was around the time I started writing. Then you’ve got to think about the racial dynamics. Handled wrong, it becomes white saviour, it becomes cliché. The thing is, Lucas’s character, he doesn’t save shit or do shit. Emily saves herself.


Waves (2019) – the role of cinematography, editing and score

Waves (2019) cinematography by Drew Daniels

The cinematography of Waves (2019), helmed by Drew Daniels, is reminiscent of a few American independent movies, including the likes of Moonlight (2016), American Honey (2016), The Florida Project (2017), Tangerine (2015) and American Fable (2016).

Most of the frames are used to place us, the viewers, in the perspective of the character. In the chapter dedicated to Tyler, Shults and Daniels use fast, dynamic shots, and edit with quick cuts. This cinematography is vibrant, full of lively, colors, however Drew Daniels reaches for more sentient, delicate moments too.

Cinematography in Waves (2019) moves along the upwards line of tension. Drew Daniels tends to use more of deep darkness and neon, energetic lighting, while the camera trades longer takes for shorter, less fluent ones, causing the experience to be less structured and more feverish. That change embraces the way Tyler grows in anger. A trick that boosts this effect of confusion is the way Shults plays with the aspect ratio. Like Xavier Dolan in Mommy (2014), Shults too confines the frames in order to achieve a stuffier, more hermetic atmosphere.

The visual similarities between Waves (2019) and Moonlight (2016)

I couldn’t help but see that Trey Edward Shults was in love with Moonlight (2016), the Oscar-winning movie directed by Barry Jenkins. Moonlight (2016) was a tremendous cinematic achievement, and its cinematography added a lot to the film’s overall appeal.

Shults draws a lot from Moonlight (2016). Many frames reveal Shults’ the spit-and-polish attitude, and how meticulously, but also boldly, Waves (2019) fiddles with camera angles and perspective. In many ways, Shults looks for saturated colors and contrasts, sometimes used to express the feelings of characters. For instance, a vibrant, burgundy shade of red clearly represents the anger that grows in Tyler, thus often present during his last scenes in the film.

However, Shults often crosses the border of inspiration, and copies – rather blatantly – style of Barry Jenkins. Here’s a few examples.

There are multiple camera angles used in the diner scene in Moonlight (2016), however this symmetrical shot is very characteristic to the scene’s dynamic. It captures the attitudes of both characters appearing in it. While it has been used in many films before, Waves (2019) incorporates a similar shot, and with the very reminiscent idea of clustering all characters in one frame so that their varying reactions commingle.

The above could be disputable, but here’s two more obvious copy-paste examples.

One of the highlights of Moonlight (2016) was a scene in which Juan – the character played by Mahershala Ali – teaches Chiron how to swim. It’s gorgeously shot, with the camera submerging in the sea, as if to mimic the struggle of a beginning swimmer.

An identical scene can be found in Waves (2019) too. In the cold depth of the many shades of blue, Tyler and Alexis float together, sealed in an entanglement of love. We observe their intimate moment from the same, above-and-below perspective.

Here’s one last example. A key conversation between Tyler and Alexis takes place on a beach, and it’s also a setting chosen by Jenkins. The dynamic of the scene, due to its editing and close focus with two characters in frame, is therefore similar between the two films.

The Waves (2019) score by Atticus Ross & Trent Reznor

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have a tremendous record in their cinematic career. Some of their best works – including The Social Network (2010) – aimed at excavating morose ambient from seemingly ordinary situations. Like in that famous scene when Eduardo threatens Mark that he will be back with a squadron of lawyers to get his money back. Setting the cast efforts aside, it’s Reznor and Ross who really make this scene memorable.

In Waves (2019), the score corresponds with the mood swings, just as the cinematography. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross kick things off with noisy, clustered layers of electronics, and their score amps up the tempo of the narrative. By the time we arrive at the first chapter’s end, Ross and Reznor compose a terrifying, uneven crescendo in Feedback Loop, a track which portrays Tyler’s darker side.

The shift to more emotional tracks takes place in Emily’s chapter, when the entire narrative becomes more solemn. Reznor and Ross reach for piano-based tracks, with less unnerving beats and sounds. While the whole Waves (2019) is undeniably fitting for the film, it regrettably isn’t on par with their top.

Waves (2019) Explained – Wrapping up

Although I have pointed out a few elements of Trey Edwards Shults’ Waves (2019) that didn’t fully take off, this is a generally underrated film. Waves (2019) offers a powerful plot, and one which finds poetry in grief, and the value of family. Shults revisits the concept of lik-father-like-son, but with more credibility and thoughtfulness too. And on the technical level, Waves (2019) is gorgeous to look at and to listen to – even if particular ideas are not of Shults’ own making.

Waves (2019)

Hate Grade: 3/10

Director: Trey Edwards Shults

Writer: Trey Edwards Shults


Music: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross

Cinematography: Drew Daniels

Read other parts of “Film Analysis by Cultural Hater” series:

Share your thoughts

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.