How do you review a movie like Waves?
I ask this because, while there is so much you could say about Waves, watching the movie with even some knowledge about what it has to offer will irrevocably taint your experience. This is a film you should go into as blind as possible and then watch over and over again so you can further understand what you may have missed in your first viewing. Without that initial shock of a blind first viewing, you wouldn’t be motivated to elaborate on why you were shocked. If you’d like to fully take my advice, don’t read the rest of this article, but please know that I highly recommend it. The film is artistically sound and complex without sacrificing accessibility, wonderfully acted, beautifully shot and composed, and painfully human. Even though it does have some issues balancing its artistic ambitions with the simple narrative, I think it’s a fantastic entry point for people who want more abstract, thought-provoking cinematic experiences, but don’t have a great idea where to begin.
For those who want a little more knowledge, Waves is essentially about the waves of emotion that color the human experience, navigating the spectrum with artistic ease - in that, you the viewer can easily understand and empathize with the emotions each character goes through, but you also see just how difficult it is for each character to grapple with and comprehend those very same emotions. This struggle is exacerbated by the attitudes of other characters, past tragedies that have been suppressed and unresolved, and the pressure to succeed without making any modicum of a mistake, regardless of whether that mistake was out of their control. These factors all eventually compound and crush their victims, leading to mistakes that simply cannot be recovered from, halting their development into proper adults - unless those victims learn to come to terms with those painful emotions and express them to the people they love. Then, they can gain the proper tools to progress, or at least alleviate the burdens of life, so they can better enjoy life’s joys.
Even though it could be seen as contradictory for an artistic, groundbreaking film to be about the simple power of love, I would argue the simplicity is merely the grounds for examining why love wasn’t able to cure all the characters’ problems initially. To elaborate, Waves explores a straightforward theme through complex means, asking rather difficult questions about human nature and portraying extremes usually dismissed as “monstrous” or “incomprehensible” as quite the opposite. The film is artistic and impactful because it explores the complexities of potential answers to what is seemingly a simple question of the presence of true love in a character’s life. You could just say “love cures all” and leave it at that, but how does love cure all? What is it actually curing? Why does someone need to be cured? Were they deprived of love in the past? Through what means were they deprived? Were they actually deprived, or did they only think they were deprived because of other issues?
What helps further separate Waves from other bildungsroman (coming-of-age stories) of its type, though, is that it demystifies the idea that adults have everything figured out. In fact, the parents within the film have the same main issues that their children have, and perhaps unquestionably relying on their advice isn’t the best course of action. This isn’t done to dehumanize the adults, or portray them as completely unreliable, but to make the point that they’re not static gods who have all the answers to your questions, and sometimes need as much help with processing the world around them as younger people do. This theme is more prominent in the second half than the first, which makes sense - the first half is partially dominated by a fear of disappointment, so rehumanizing exactly who that character would be disappointing is perhaps the best way of alleviating that fear.
Furthermore, all of this thematic weight is accompanied and amplified by one of the strongest combinations of visuals and music in film this year. The film isn’t afraid to change its aspect ratio or engage in musical sequences when it sees fit, and it has some of the most eye-catching lighting and coloring I’ve seen in a film in quite some time. Everything about the presentation is gorgeous, and there were some shots I simply want to have framed. The editing is also phenomenal, and there’s one cut in particular that has been running through my head incessantly since I’ve seen the film. When you see it, you know that’s when the film reached an apex, shattering the world of these characters and leaving them desperately scrambling to pick up the pieces afterwards. The cinematography is very intentional and fueled by the emotional context surrounding each scene; for instance, when the film wants to depict an ordinary day that’s fairly unremarkable, the camera doesn’t stop moving forward, making it hard for the audience to fully comprehend what they’re seeing. This reflects how we go through our own daily lives - we just continue moving forward, without really contemplating the events. Then, when something shocking happens, the camera’s still, and sometimes reality itself is blurred and distorted to visually portray the character’s internal state.
Even so, there are limits to the presentation. When the music, visuals, and narrative are all congruent with each other, it results in some truly impactful filmmaking. But, when they aren’t, it feels meandering and somewhat heavy-handed. The musical sequences perhaps exemplify this the most, as some are fantastic, but others were gratuitous and made you feel like you were watching a collection of music video instead of a film. This isn’t helped by the fact that the songs are by recognizable artists (Frank Ocean and Kanye West, for example), so while they can set the mood, exterior context can interfere with how you interpret these sequences. Generally, though, this is a minor issue, but the weirder parts are when the film goes full “hey look, I’m artsy,” and just shows blurred colors on the screen with strange music. I do get the feeling I’d better understand why those were there upon a rewatch, but I saw them as opportunities for the filmmaker to beat you over the head with how artsy he is, despite how he’s clearly and effectively proven that already.
I can also see people claiming this film is a huge mess, and as response...yes, it kind of is. The film’s structured more around themes than concrete plot points, so if you’re not on board with the characters or willing to accept a non-traditional narrative, this is probably not the film for you. Even if you’re on board, there are quite a few points where the film leans too far into its “hey look, I’m artsy” tendencies, giving off an air of pretentiousness that’ll turn off people looking for a more subtle experience. I suppose those same people might call the film obnoxious and overbearing, but I think those descriptors are far too derogatory. The film itself is about how emotional suppression is bad, so it wouldn’t have been nearly as good if it’d engaged in quieter filmmaking. In fact, calling Waves messy could be considered a compliment, because the emotions within the film are messy; if the film had emphasized clarity, that messiness wouldn’t have gotten across at all. That doesn’t excuse poor filmmaking, but I do think all the positive elements within the movie work to alleviate those flaws.
Overall, Waves is an ambitious portrayal of a family grappling with their feelings, and calls on you to do the same. It’s a complicated movie to discuss, both in its content and its actual quality, but I think it’s an experience you should undergo. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, and maybe by the time you read this it’ll finally stop circulating in my head (hopefully if you’re reading this 10 years later it will have), but rarely does such a fascinating, painful, cathartic film crawl its way into the public eye - and that’s worth celebrating.