This week would appear to be the dumping ground for films that showed up on the fringes of the awards conversation, but couldn't quite sustain their momentum into a serious run. (A lot of them are two hours plus, which might have been one issue: here are the screeners no-one got round to.) Waves hails from Trey Edward Shults, who caught eyes with 2015's Krisha before overseeing 2017's taut, self-contained genre hit It Comes at Night; having thus warmed up, he now takes a Magnolia-style swing for the fences with a state-of-the-American-nation address that feels bold, timely and provocative, but also requires a certain patience as we wait for the grandness of its design (which has something to do with a partition door between two siblings' bedrooms) to reveal itself. Initially, it's a demonstration of Shults' faith in those old-fashioned virtues of character and place to hold us. We're deposited in a phosphorescently vibrant corner of the Florida Keys - the polar opposite of It Comes at Night's dark rural retreat - alongside one Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), star wrestler on his high-school team, and a young man with plenty to wrestle with even before he hits the mat: the pushiness of his father (Sterling K. Brown), breaking news that his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) has skipped a period, and a diagnosis of a muscle tear that could well bring an illustrious early chapter of his life to an end. As his cartwheeling energies are dissipated and turned inwards, it looks as though Shults is focusing his attention on that most 21st century of subjects: male rage. (As I noted in my review of this year's Oscar frontrunner Joker - and as one could say about every other damn news story of the past decade - there's a lot of it about.) This isn't the whole picture, however, and here's where Waves gets surprising and rather touching.
For an hour, granted, Shults's film is not unlike Joker in its generation of a grim tension: we wonder when Tyler's anger is going to come out, which of his loved ones is going to get most hurt by it, and where the building, apparently unstoppable momentum of his anger is destined to carry him. Yet where the explosion of Arthur Fleck was an inevitability, an opportunity for Todd Phillips and the DC beancounters to give the incel demographic just what they'd brooded on, Tyler's meltdown is unmistakably positioned as an American tragedy. A volcanic Harrison, Jr. is seen working through very different energies - potential, agitation, frustration, eruption, and finally a numb realisation at the destruction he's caused - in what may be contemporary cinema's most complete sketch of squandered promise; certainly, Shults is determined to frame the character's downfall as such. For a while, I proved resistant to the film's insistently showy soundtrack - barely a scene goes by without a hipper-than-thou music cue - while holding onto the caveat these would be almost exactly the songs a teenager might use to pump himself up before leaving his room to commit dreadful, regrettable deeds. They're but cautious recommendations. (Whether observing Tyler's manic pillpopping or some injudicious all-caps texting, Shults is ever-alert to the dangers of over-stimulation.) Yet that soundtrack proves typical of Waves' ultra-considered form; at every stage, we can see (and hear) Shults thinking through his choices, and how they might best serve the story he's trying to tell.
After a decisive rupture at the halfway mark, the film shifts from a widescreen frame to an Academy ratio, in part because this is a work made by a young tyro with career momentum testing the very boundaries of his art - you'll remember Xavier Dolan did something similar amid 2014's Mommy - but also to mark the narrowing of a world, and just perhaps how the walls begin to close in on Tyler. The break allows Waves to refocus, reshape itself. In stark contrast to the antsy first half, the second is greatly more soothing, taking up with Tyler's younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell) as she embraces the attentions of a nerdy suitor (Lucas Hedges, again typecast as a jittery virgin). Only here, over an hour into Waves, does it become clear what Shults is going for - and it's not empty sensation, but pleasing symmetry, hence the recourse to a familiar song, scenes in baths, and an exceptionally complicated camera set-up in and around a car's front seats. The grand design, it turns out, is dependent on what this filmmaker demonstrated so amply in his first two features: that he can deliver thrills, but also something more observational and sedately naturalistic. This antacid-tablet of a second half is intentionally neutralising, which comes as a gearshift after Tyler's trial-by-fire, and I question whether it quite has the weight of life experience behind it to wallop us as it should (and as Magnolia, partly due to the seniority of its acting personnel, undeniably did): it strikes me as telling that the image Shults bookends the movie with is the essentially juvenile one of a kid riding her bike. Yet the shift allows this ambitious, well-intentioned project to relax again, regain the widescreen it once luxuriated in (the Academy frame is just a portal, like a doorway) and return us to an equilibrium you may have thought lost, in the movie, as in the world. For each dead end, a fresh start; to fight the hate, some love. You could easily dismiss Waves as naive or overly neat; as evidenced by its every pulsatingly scored, frantically curated frame, this is very much a young person's movie. I think you could only do so, however, if you were certain in your heart of hearts that it wasn't so urgently necessary right now.
Waves opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.