Movies are rarely split in two. By conventional screenwriting standards, the three-act structure is most common. The setup, the confrontation, the solution. Sometimes a movie inflates into operatic or Shakespearean shape, like this year’s Her Smell, a five-act portrait of a rock star in perilous decline before eventual redemption. Superhero movies and fantasy novel adaptations have stretched the definitions of story structure, lengthening stakes with a deathless multipart format. But most movies are designed with the hero’s journey in mind. Meet hero, watch hero fall, witness hero rise again. The split movie, on the other hand—one that shifts the focus of its figures, that bifurcates its events and its themes into two distinct parts—is a rare thing. I’ve just seen a rare and audacious thing at the Telluride Film Festival, and it’s called Waves.
The 30-year-old writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s third film is rare for reasons that extend beyond its structure—it is a personal story about a suburban South Florida family in crisis that transcends its milieu and the details of its story. But what Shults has accomplished, so quickly in his career, is tripartite genius: One, a formal dynamism and visual style that is uniquely his own, one part claustrophobic anxiety and one part wondrous, whirling bliss. Two, a deeply designed world that never sacrifices intimacy—we see after-mass lunches and stolen conversations and tearful meltdowns in close, desperate proximity. And three, an emotional hysteria I haven’t felt in a movie theater in years. Waves is the kind of movie that punches you in the gut, and then slashes your Achilles as you reach for your stomach. Then, as you fall, it catches you in its arms. It is relentless but never exploitative.
Closely tracking the upper-middle-class Williams family and their two children, Waves is split between Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr. from this summer’s Luce), a focused wrestler and aspirant alpha male, and Emily (Taylor Russell, revelatory), his introverted and unformed younger sister. Surrounding them is their father, Ronald, a hulking, stentorian Sterling K. Brown, and Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry as their graceful mother, Catherine. They’re parents who actively communicate and set expectations for their children. They ask about their days at school. They attend every meet and match. They say “I love you” while making eye contact. The Williamses at first seem like a picture of millennial American progress—a striving African American family, conscious of the world’s biases and thrumming against it by succeeding. Then things begin to unravel for the Williams family, and just as you’re getting the hang of Waves, it crashes down on you.
Shults’s first two films, 2015’s Krisha and 2017’s It Comes at Night, were admired but little-seen variations on horror—one familial, the other psychobiological. Among cinephiles and industry gadflies, he has had the inside-baseball reputation of One to Watch for a while. His third film, a self-described personal piece that has been in the works for 10 years, fuses the first two movies, bringing the neon environmental dread of Night into union with Krisha’s slow-burn, family-tree nightmare. Seeing both of these films before Waves informs its power. But Waves, which will be released in November by A24, is something else, too. It’s a leveling up, a reach for definition and clarity—on the destructive burden fathers can impart upon their sons, the absentee shadow cast on daughters, the compulsive nature of winning and scoring, the urge to express joy publicly while burying pain and depression. These are universal and modern concerns, and Shults addresses them without sanctimony or solutions.
Brown’s character looms over the movie like a generational turnstile, a person who knows he has to do better, be better, but doesn’t always know how to exert his decency, how to challenge his children, how to be a good partner. It’s a performance you can see bursting from Brown’s veins—he is so clenched, so booming and powerful, that the movie sometimes slips down his throat. It escapes when it leaves the Williams home and discovers the world with its two protagonists—it finds tragedy and hope (mostly in the form of human decency machine Lucas Hedges) for its heroes. There’s more than one journey in Waves.
Shults worked as an intern-apprentice under Terrence Malick, doing time as a production assistant on the legendary director’s films as a student, including 2011’s The Tree of Life. And there is a Malickian magic-hour ambrosia to Shults’s film, shot in glistening southeastern tropical color and moving into uncommon closeness on its characters. (The film opens with a kaleidoscopic spinning shot from inside a car as two joyful characters sing at the top of their lungs—the sequence is later echoed with different characters and different stakes.) From Malick he’s adopted a sweeping empathy, even for the worst of his characters. Shults doesn’t judge them. But he’s no agrarian wheat fetishist. Waves is a 2019 movie about young people, their destruction and yearning for rebirth, and their unusual exposure to hate, disassociation, and violence. It is laced, literally riven, with recent music history. Tyler has a Life of Pablo poster hanging from his wall. Animal Collective blares from a car stereo. Friends scream the words to Kendrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle” while crowded around a bonfire. As a character finally melts down, Kanye’s “I Am a God” rages in the background. A Vampire Weekend joke is cracked. Frank Ocean appears and disappears. Radiohead gets the last word. And when the needles stop dropping, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are there with a reliably haunting score. Though its tone is more severe and high-tension, Waves has an energy that recalls American Graffiti—a portrait of a generation on the brink of … something. Is it madness? Disappointment? Generosity? Shults never quite says definitively, though you can read deeply into his musical cues—they’re precise. “When did I become a ghost?” Kid Cudi asks in one notably resonant cue.
Though it is arguably the greatest film festival in the world, Telluride, I am told, was unusually chock-full of greatness this year. Bong Joon-ho’s masterful, Palme d’Or–winning Parasite turned away 600 people at its third screening of the festival. Noah Baumbach’s wrenching Marriage Story hit like a conclusive gavel, firmly declaring him one of the world’s greatest working filmmakers. The Safdies brothers’ Uncut Gems warped minds, rankled the older patrons of the festival, and absolutely thrilled me for 140 minutes. (Much, much more on this one soon.) Even Fernando Meirelle’s The Two Popes, a movie born to be a meme, turned out to be one of the most beloved and praised events of the weekend. And Malick himself—well, not himself, he never shows up anywhere—had A Hidden Life in Colorado, a three-hour treatise on peaceful resistance in the face of zealotry and terror. The deck was stacked.
But festival screening raves are notoriously untrustworthy fare—the famed altitude and beatific attitude of Telluride in particular creates a kind of high for films that dissipates as soon as everyone gets home and the rest of the world sees—or, in many cases, doesn’t see—their movies. So proceed with caution, I guess. I saw Waves early in the morning with expectations set high by a friend and a solid admiration for Shults’s first two movies. It didn’t exceed those expectations—more like eluded them altogether. It wasn’t what I was I was expecting, thank God. I’m not capable of anticipating a movie like it. But Waves did the thing that I want from movies: shock, envelop, break down, and rebuild me. Such movies rarely happen.
When I interviewed Shults in 2017, I was stunned by his cheery disposition. He’s a smiler, warm, a bright-eyed movie nerd. How did this guy come up with that foreboding red door in It Comes at Night?, I thought. He was 28 then, and seemed eager to get out of the chair and go make something. He did just that.