Waves Ending Explained & Plot Analysis

Trey Edward Shults offers exciting and fresh cinema with his African-American family drama set in South Florida. However, it should not be overlooked that the visually powerful, self-confident and self-indulgent production sometimes pushes the plot and characters into the background.

Trey Edward Shults third feature film captivates the audience from the very first sounds and images. When you hear the heavy breathing of a young woman to the sound of black film and then the camera fluidly follows young Emily (Taylor Russell) riding her bike through an avenue, you are already in the mood for a very unusual and exciting cinematic trip.

The scene changes abruptly to young people traveling in a car, then to tough fitness training in which the young African-American Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his wrestling colleagues are drilled with the phrase “I am a machine”, then to a school scene and finally to a party on the beach.

This opening develops an incredible drive thanks to Drew Daniels’ constantly circling or flowing camera – you can tell that Shults was an intern for Terrence Malick – and the electrifying synthesizer music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have already contributed brilliant soundtracks to David Fincher’s last films.

After this furious opening, the focus increasingly shifts to Tyler, who is a senior in high school and lives in a luxurious house with his younger sister Emily and his parents. As with his training, he is driven to maximum performance by his strict father (Sterling K. Brown), who brooks no dissent. He explains to his son that they cannot afford the luxury of being average, but must always be much better than the whites in order to get the same.

Shults, who is white himself, offers intense physical body cinema when he portrays the muscle-bound young African-Americans and tells of a mania for masculinity that attempts to compensate for slights and disadvantages. The men don’t want to admit any weakness, just as Tyler’s father runs the family with a firm hand, Tyler hides a shoulder injury and secretly takes more and more painkillers in order to continue wrestling.

He also wants to show his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) that he is in charge and wants to decide for her when she tells him that she is pregnant. Under the influence of the painkillers, he becomes increasingly aggressive, with the change from widescreen format to narrow 4:3 also conveying his anxiety and quasi-obsessive behavior.

Just as the priest at the mass the family attended at the beginning preached about the power of love, but also about hate, “Waves” also tells of these two poles. The picture widens again when the film picks up again after a tragic event and, with the story of Tyler’s sister Emily, delicately and gently tells of love and reconciliation.

This field of tension is not only dealt with in the opposing characters and stories of brother and sister, but Shults also conveys this in the staging, in which long fades to black repeatedly mark caesuras and leaps in time. Not only is Tyler’s masculinity and physicality contrasted with Emily’s gentleness and fragility, but strong red is repeatedly juxtaposed with striking blue and long circling and gliding camera movements with static shots of dialog.

The production is undoubtedly furious, captivating thanks to the freshness and naturalness of the young actors, who are largely unknown apart from Luke Hedges, and the geographical anchoring in summery Florida, but the over-staging should not be overlooked. The 31-year-old director offers pure cinema in his play with the camera, light and color and the soundtrack enriched with numerous songs, evoking intense emotions and atmosphere in the style of Wong Kar-wai’s films or Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”.

At the same time, however, the openly exhibited formal mastery repeatedly pushes the human destinies into the background, while the social component is almost completely ignored. The fact that someone wants to show what he is capable of cinematically disturbs the overall impression, but at the same time this formal virtuosity gives us hope that we will hear a lot more from Schults if he keeps a little more in check and takes a step back as a director in future films.

The feelings surge up and down, pile up into mountains and collapse again. Still waters are churned up, tears rush to the surface like spray. “Waves”, the third feature film by Texan indie director Trey Edward Shults, undoubtedly deserves its title. After his strongly autobiographical debut “Krisha” and the arthouse horror hit “It Comes At Night”, he once again turns his attention to the contradictions of the middle-class family. It can heal and hurt, it unites and divides. Like ebb and flow, it alternately draws people in with all its power and pushes them away again with the same force only a short time later. “Waves” is often an effective movie, but also a contradictory one. The drama floods the audience with visual ideas and striking stylistic devices. Sometimes this creates a touching closeness, but often also a cold distance.

It is a story that falls into two parts. The first half tells the story of Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an 18-year-old high school student and successful wrestler. His strict, cold father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) constantly demands that he perform at his best. Tyler is ambitious, dreaming of a sports scholarship for college and a professional career. But perhaps these are just his father’s dreams for him. A shoulder injury that has been ignored for too long and a big fight with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) lead to tragic events. In the second half of the movie, Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russel) has to deal with the consequences. She finds an ally in her shy classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges). But he himself has a complicated relationship with his family…

Tyler leads a restless life. For him, every day is a sprint without respite. The first half of the film, his half, also reflects this experience in terms of staging. It is full of fast camera movements, with the gaze constantly rotating. Everything revolves around Tyler, in the truest sense of the word. Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays him exhilarated and rushed. An insecure teenager in a massive wrestler’s body, trying to escape himself. When a new scene is presented, there is often no classic long shot. Instead, the camera rushes into the building. These kinds of movements are always used, never a zoom or a cut. Everything has to move, has to flow. Always.

Sometimes it seems as if the viewer should get seasick. Indie and rap songs blast from the soundtrack, uninterrupted. One song fades out, the next begins. Just no peace, just no standstill! The choice of songs is a little clumsy. Tyler has relationship stress, so The Creator raps “I fucking hate you / But I love you” from off-screen. Tyler indulges in his delusions of grandeur and egotism, so Kanye West is played with “I Am a God”. Later, when everything becomes a little more reflective and melancholy, Radiohead comes on. Subtle is different.

Emily of the film Waves
… before his sister Emily increasingly takes center stage in the second half.

The world narrows – and with it the cinematic image
As Tyler’s future gradually darkens, the movie does the same. Like Canadian director Xavier Dolan in films such as “Mommy” and “Don’t tell me who you are!”, Trey Edward Shults also uses various aspect ratios to depict the inner lives of the characters. When Tyler falls asleep exhausted in the bathtub, all it takes is one cut – and suddenly black beams are pressing down on him from below and above. The walls come closer. The world no longer seems as free and open, as full of possibilities, as before. In the end, all he has left is the confining 4:3 format; he is completely trapped.

The second half of the drama begins in the same way, Emily has withdrawn from the world and lives in isolation. Then the image expands again, further and further. At the end, it fills the whole screen again, just like in the first 20 minutes. A horizontal movie first becomes vertical, then horizontal again. The movie thus performs a large undulating movement. This is of course an interesting concept, but it also points to the strange indie formalism that characterizes Shults’ films. He presents his creative means quite openly and doesn’t even try to make them disappear into the plot or atmosphere.

There is nothing wrong with this in the first place; many directors have worked very effectively in this way. However, this approach does not seem to be made for his type of melodrama. He doesn’t want to analyze or deconstruct with his film, he clearly wants to enthrall and overwhelm. Unfortunately, we are often more concerned with the question of why exactly the camera is going round in circles again than with the emotions of the moment. Less would have been more here. This is also the reason why Emily’s part of the story works so much better. Her story is told more directly and therefore seems more honest and truthful.

One would certainly be more sympathetic to former Terrence Malick trainee Shults if these were really his pictures. But somehow “Waves” never quite rises above the endless flood of American Indiewood productions. When Trey stands half in the ocean with his girlfriend and the camera floats exactly on the surface of the water, one is inevitably reminded of Barry Jenkins’ Oscar success “Moonlight”. Even the lighting mood was roughly the same there. The structure – as Shults himself repeatedly explains in interviews – was taken from the classic “Chungking Express” by Hong Kong legend Wong Kar-Wai. (Wong Kar-Wai is also one of Barry Jenkins’ great role models.) Too often, Shults comes across as an ambitious student who can reproduce what he has learned but fails to transfer it.

Sometimes less is more
Interestingly, the film is always most effective when it takes a step back and gives its actors space. Simple moments of togetherness, filmed in a simple way. A conversation between father and daughter in which the stony patriarchal mask breaks and doubts and fears come to the fore. The moment when two people who have long been strangers finally understand each other. Forgiveness. Simple, naked feelings that the director usually covers up with a thousand layers of gloss paint. You can usually only guess at them.

Conclusion: It’s not just the story and form of “Waves” that move in waves, the quality of the film also rises and falls with every scene. It succeeds where it really gets involved with its characters – and fails where it simply wants to overwhelm with its style.

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