Director: Trey Edward Shults
Writer: Trey Edward Shults
Cinematographer: Drew Daniels
Producer: Kevin Turen, Jessica Row, and Trey Edward Shults
by Jon Cvack
My friend has been telling me to see this movie for weeks. Not knowing anything about it beyond that it was made by the director It Comes At Night (2017) in a fascinating shift. The moment he said Trent Reznor did the soundtrack, I was determined to find a screening on its last week.
I’m halfway through Euphoria. Visually, it’s the most exciting show on television, but in terms of story, it plays like a jumped shark of any teen drama. The story is beyond belief, and while combined with the style, it helps capture an essence of high school, there’s so little in specific that I can relate to. Everything is to the extreme, creating a melodrama that’s less accessible.
I knew nothing of Waves beyond it being a domestic drama, getting hints that something significant happens early on that sets the family on a particular path. We meet Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) driving in a car with his girlfriend Alexis Lopez (Alexa Demie). The camera spins around in circles per the likes of Children of Men (2006), creating a tension that something was about to happen. They’re kissing, Tyler’s foot is out the window, and we wonder if they’re about to get in an accident; fall off the bridge, get hit by a car, lose control. And then the film cuts. We watch the pair in the Florida ocean, kissing in the water and playing in the sand.
We flash back and find Tyler at wrestling practice, running the track where he sees his girlfriend who eyes him down and the two start seeing each other. The sequence is exactly what I was hoping Euphoria would be, leaning on a brilliant style and rhythm but never taking the story beyond reality. Terrence Malick is all over the film and while it’s a bit too obvious at points, I’m coming around to the idea that what Saving Private Ryan did for the war film, Malick did for using images to push a narrative and convey emotion.
Back home we meet his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) who demands more than a single word answer when he asks how school went. Ronald is a demanding, though loving father; adhering his son to a strict workout regimen and pushing hard on academics. After experiencing discomfort in his shoulder, Tyler starts taking some of his father’s painkillers to numb the pain on occasion, later going to the doctor and learning that he has permanent damage in his tendon which could lead to an irreversible injury that should forever end his days of wrestling immediately. Tyler ignores the doctor’s advice and takes on the next match where in one of the most excruciating displays of pain I’ve ever seen, we watch his opponent take him down, sending a bolting shock of pain through his body. He loses the first match and goes again, again taken down, his arm dragged behind his body until the pain grows so severe he blacks out.
He wakes up and reveals the truth to his parents, turning to pills and booze. He learns that Alexis is late, and failing to grasp what it means, parties more and more with his family. She reveals she’s pregnant. Vowing to do whatever he needs to do to support her, the scene cuts to them cruising to an abortion clinic, where in a fascinating sequence, the camera stays in the car, catching just glimpses of the protestors outside. We move in and the security guard introduces himself, warning of how extreme and vitriolic the protestors could be, and while we think it’s continued from outside, Alexis then enters the room and we realize she already had gone outside.
They cruise off and Alexis reveals she couldn’t go through with it. Tyler tries to offer his support as the reality strikes him. It’s a brilliant portrayal of youth, in which the inability to handle such altering news causes both Tyler and Alexis to explode; each committed to their side and unleashing a tirade of insults and profanity as Alexis jumps out of the car and refuses to take a ride home.
The pressure continues and Tyler further turns toward pills and alcohol, trying his best to return to working out. One night he returns home drunk, ending up puking on the bathroom floor where his sister finds him, worried that he’ll wake their parents. Things culminate in one of the most dramatic and realistic text scenes yet created as Tyler attempts to play nice guy to see if Alexis is going to keep the baby, cutting between nothing but his close up and the messages and yet providing a thrilling sequence as he loses all control, even over his ability to type lucidly before going on to destroy his entire bathroom. By now the movie’s chugging full steam ahead. Tyler has lost his girl who’s going to have his baby, can’t wrestle any longer and he turns further and further to booze and drugs.
It’s here that the parallels between Euphoria and Waves is most apparent. Yet while Euphoria asks us to accept characters as they are, Waves show how characters become what they are. It’s of course melodramatic, but it captures a mood. Just today I read that millennials and subsequent generations are more depressed, anxious, and less healthy than Gen Xers. Waves’ plot itself isn’t all that unique, but the way in which it’s told is. The style isn’t as extreme as Euphoria and that’s what makes it work. Shults takes us through scenes by first focusing on what feels real rather than on what’s the most visually pleasing way to do it, and as a result, makes the film feel far more true to life.
Things come to a head when Tyler follows Alexis going to prom on Instagram; pounding vodka and taking more pills while he watches alone in his room until he finally heads down to leave. He’s stopped by his step mom who he scolds until his father comes in who Tyler pushes down some steps and they kick him out. He heads off to the after party where in a brilliant and thrilling scene - as of this writing, the best of the year - where Tyler sneaks into the house and approaches Alexis, begging for forgiveness before he strikes her, causing her to collapse and crack her head open on the ground. Tyler takes off, heading back home, but quickly gets apprehended by the cops. He’s sentenced to life in jail.
At two hours and fifteen minutes, I’m guessing this scene takes place at about 100 minutes in. Yet instead of allowing this climactic moment to end, the story continues on and fails to ever gain the same steam it had for the first two thirds. We then follow the sister Emily (Taylor Russell) who soon ends up with Tyler’s classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges) and they begin dating. We follow them on a similar journey, soon learning that Luke’s estranged dad is dying of cancer. The pair take ecstasy, later have sex, and appear to have a seemingly normal relationship. The film ends shortly after the pair visit Luke’s dad in the hospital which felt a bit jarring
The first film that comes to mind is Place Beyond the Pines (2012) which takes a similar shift, in which I struggle to remember much from the second half and so much from the first. I’m left wondering what the reasoning was, as unfortunately, I kept experiencing that expectation that the film would end, only for it to keep on going for twenty more minutes. I’m sure another viewing is in order, as the connections could become more apparent, but Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is so good and his plot so riveting that it felt like this movie could have been near flawless if ended by the hour and forty five mark. It’s still an amazing piece of work, as even the hanging-chad has some beautiful moments, but it does show the danger in providing the climax just a third before the conclusion.
BELOW: One of the best scenes of the year
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