Waves Review: “All We Have Is Now”

November 26, 2019 | By Calvary Dominique

A24 has done it again.


I could paste this sentence at the top of a blank document, use said document as a template for every future review of an A24 movie, and, if their current winning streak is any indication, it would probably remain just as true. Founded only seven years ago, this entertainment company now dominates the indie film industry, consistently producing and distributing films of pristine quality, including Moonlight (2016), Lady Bird (2017), and Hereditary (2018).


Photos Courtesy of A24

In an era of the blockbuster, films from A24 focus on stories that are smaller in scale, deeply human, and emotionally driven. Waves is no different. Written and directed by 31-year-old Trey Edward Shults, who previously directed both the critically-acclaimed drama Krishna and the psychological horror film It Comes at Night, this newest release is a hauntingly electrifying film that leaves you emotionally drained and speechless.


Waves stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Tyler, an African-American high school senior from Miami who is seemingly living the “dream life.” He has a gorgeous girlfriend named Alexis (Alexa Demie), he’s at the top of his wrestling game, he bleaches his hair like Frank Ocean, and he is popular. As the protagonist, everything is filtered from his biased perspective.


We are introduced to his stern, domineering father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), his patient and hard-working stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and his shy younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who starts off in her older brother’s shadow, but gets her time to shine in the spotlight in the second act as the film’s breakout star.


Photos Courtesy of A24

The obstacles that Tyler faces? His dad’s exacting expectations threaten his desire to carve his own path. His relationship with his girlfriend careens towards disaster. And a muscle injury in his shoulder threatens to end not just his athletic career, but his potential scholarship opportunities and the bright future that once seemed so fated and inevitable. Rather than face anything head-on, Tyler recklessly avoids, ignores, and masks his problems as everything keeps spiraling. The director literally shifts the aspect ratio to reflect the state of its characters. Yet for such a heavy movie, there are also moments of levity, warmth, and joy. In the supporting role of Emily’s love interest, Lucas Hedges brings his usual awkward-yet-charming style to the film. 


Sibling relationships, racism, parental pressure, addiction, tragedy, and broken relationships are not original themes, yet they are handled in an honest, refreshing, and unpredictable way in Waves. Shults’s experiences in directing both drama and psychological horror join forces here in perfect fusion. Though not obvious from the beginning, this movie is surreal and chilling, and it builds up in a harrowing manner. Many of the film’s “waves” are bubbling underneath the surface before becoming full-on tsunamis and descending into almost horror-like territory.


Photos Courtesy of A24

I would be remiss to not describe the movie’s soundtrack, one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard that captures the modern era like a time capsule of sound, and the movie’s cinematography, which is breathtaking and masterful in every respect. I was unsurprised to learn that Drew Daniels, one of the cinematographers for the HBO series Euphoria, was also involved in Waves, as they both have that trippy, sensory overload, fever-dreamlike feel. The soundtrack makes amazing use of songs by modern artists like Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, Kanye West, and Frank Ocean, and mixes diegetic and non-diegetic sound effortlessly — so much so that the soundtrack almost becomes another character in the film.


I went into the movie fairly blind, as the trailer doesn’t reveal much about the plot, and I am grateful. I think this film works best when this is the case. It’s one of those films that sneaks up on you — and then pounces. It’s like a roller coaster ride that starts off quiet, starts picking up speed, and before you can even brace yourself, it’s flying. It’s hard to talk about this film without spoiling its climax, but the best way to describe it is in its title. This is a movie about waves — the waves of life, in all their messy complications.


Life doesn’t always make sense, and it isn’t always safe. There aren’t always clear-cut heroes and villains, comfortably broken up into good and evil, black and white. There are only human beings caught up in a world filled with scary, murky nuances of gray while slowly drifting, wave after wave. But to quote the film, “all we have is now.”