Trey Shults' Waves (2019): A Study in Color and Parallelism

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Trey Shults' Waves (2019) inspires passionate discussion from its viewers. Some praise the storytelling style of multiple points of view, while others complain that it's a meandering mess. I'm definitely in the former camp and appreciated how the change in POV added depth. Waves provides an unforgettable experience of color, sound, and emotion. It tells a compelling story and provides opportunities for discussion. It's exactly the type of story I want to support.

African American high school student Ty (Kelvin Harrison) has it all: the girl, the friends, athleticism, the acclaim, and by all counts, a supportive family. We open to a series of montages showing us Ty's life: hanging with his girl, high on life and crazy in love, going to practice, working out, taking selfies. He is on the wrestling team, and they all chant, "I cannot be taken down; I am a new machine," while performing drills. Ty lives in an upper middle class home with his dad and stepmom (we find this out later) and younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell).

As we get to know Ty and his family better though, we begin to see cracks in this "perfect family" facade. Ty is under a great deal of pressure from his father to be the best in everything. Performance anxiety is a normal part of life when dad monitors your every move. The dad, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) takes special interest in his grades, his physical fitness, and his future. Then there's info dropped that Ty has a bad shoulder. He's taking some medication to handle the pain. But the shoulder is getting worse, and he seems afraid to share how bad it is.

Not wanting to disappoint his father or the rest of the family, Ty tries to hide his circumstances until it's too late. As his dreams of a sports career seem to dissolve, his life goes from bad to worse, and his inability to cope with roadblocks takes him to a very dark place.

But just when you thought the story couldn't get any darker and intense, there is a switch from one main character to another, and the story completely changes from the story of one teenage boy to the a portrait of the whole family, as we explore how things look from Emily's perspective. And in making this switch, Waves becomes a story to which almost anyone can relate, because now we learn about the sister, the stepmom, the dad, and the sister's new love interest, Luke (played by Lucas Hedges).

With a change in perspective, there is also a visual switch in tone and mood. As Ty's story unfolds, most scenes take place either at night, at the breaking of dawn, or inside darkened rooms. The screen fills with melancholy blue tones overlaid by a filter of gray and heaviness and electricity. The colors match the suffocating weight of the family's expectations for Ty. When the story changes to the other perspective, the colors change from pastels at first and then light and warmer colors. Most scenes take place outside, in the day and the light. There is a weight lifted as our story turns to grace, forgiveness, and understanding within the family.

The story also explores parallelism. Many shots of Ty's life are revisited later within Emily's narrative, and it's a way of connecting the two characters and showing their bond. There is a powerful scene in a bathroom that is repeated later that will inevitably inspire tears in many audience members. In addition to pairing Ty and Emily, the story also explores the parallel journeys of Ty and Luke and two different versions of masculinity. Ty hides his pain, and only knows how to explode in anger, while Luke shares his grief and isn't afraid to cry. So when tragedy comes for Luke, he has the skills to cope with it and help someone else in their time of need.

Although Shults doesn't spoon feed viewers as to how they should feel, it provides plenty of food for thought for viewers. There is so much to say about sons and fathers, families, parental expectations, and how to achieve real happiness.