Although every thing in Waves appears to be realist, the film works much better on a poetic level, which, intentional or not, is a high compliment.
One protagonist is Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a star high school wrestler and fan of Kendrick and Frank Ocean, a rich kid with smooth skin and hair bleached, combed in waves. He is riding on an everlasting wave when we meet him, camera circling on a loop in his SUV—from his beautiful happy face, to his girlfriend's beautiful happy face (Alexa Demie from Euphoria, playing quite a similar part), to the beautiful Moonlight Miami water—as though this ecstatic feeling will last forever. Although economically removed from Moonlight, in Waves the line between ecstasy and oblivion is also thin and Tyler lacks the support system to toe it. He has a severe tear in his shoulder which he has neglected to tell his well-intentioned but suffocating parents. Alexis has news that is another extreme Tyler is unequipped for, unable to react outside of himself, because in order to survive he must shut everyone else out.
Director Trey Shults’ main collaborator, the DP Drew Daniels, also shot episodes of Euphoria and along with the neon and strobe articulation of Gen-Z narcissism and indulgence, comparisons are invited (Where are the chilled Gen-Z parties onscreen? They always look like sci-fi adaptations of Saló). The characters in Waves have more demons, and less online competence. Tyler texts in all caps before he thinks, and takes topless selfies in the mirror, more like someone fifteen years ago than the generation of Tik Tok and whatever else. His spiralling out of control is not totally explained, but this makes it all the more unsettling, and convincing.
The course of his and Alexis' actions as characters don't logically follow, but emotionally—in the context of the rage at the injustice of being someone's child, at them being your parent, wanting to hurt someone to hurt yourself and hurt everyone who cares about you—they are perfectly coherent. Reaching its first part crescendo, Waves has the nervous energy of a panic attack where you don't have to understand why it's coming on but partly due to experience and partly due to memories and guilt and suppressed shame you just know it is. Unlike Euphoria, the pain isn't justified. It's real. It isn't told to you. It's there.
So when the film becomes more realist with our second protagonist, Emily (Taylor Russell), Tyler's sister, it is slightly like being pulled out of a movie and into life, which is still dramatic but much less interesting. In reductive cinema terms, it is like Magnolia swerving into Manchester-by-the-sea, complete with Lucas Hedges and a trip to visit an absentee parent. There is a sense of a period of reflection in the more naturalistic and breathing cinematography that works, as though the hallucinatory and heinous first part is now viewed in the cold light of day, a visual come-down.
Russell is excellent as Emily, shy but not standoffish, innocent but not naive, kind and thoughtful and generous but never a martyr. She is a victim, too, of a cruel and undeserved fate, but neither the character nor the actor sees herself as one. Her subtle and tender performance alone could transfer the film into another mode. But the lack of internal logic in the characters is now pressed upon the audience: rather than not understanding yet also not questioning, we now understand but question why. Emily's boyfriend played by Lucas Hedges has a Dad who used to beat him and his Mum, possibly worse, and he is dying of cancer and they are going on a road trip to redeem him and send him into the afterlife peacefully. That is suddenly what we're doing. As the kids say: it’s a lot.
But with Russell’s performance, and the memories of Tyler bleeding into it, anything pale and mundane in Waves is stained in bright, brilliant, horrifying colours.
— Theo Macdonald