By Adam Nayman
With Waves, Trey Edward Shults goes for broke; another way to put it is that he’s writing cheques that his filmmaking can’t cash. Even leaving aside the question (which I’m assuming will be asked at some point by somebody not otherwise participating in a standing ovation) about a white filmmaker aggressively melodramatizing the dysfunction of an affluent African-American family—with the pathos consolidated in the vertiginous downward spiral of aspiring high-school wrestler Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)—this is a movie made up almost exclusively of flourishes, some of which are clearly borrowed (submerged camera set-ups from Moonlight, abstract interludes à la Punch Drunk Love) while others suggest a more distinctively bullying showmanship. There is an attempt at a contemporary, cause-and-effect social vision here, and an early sequence at an abortion clinic is emotionally harrowing in exactly the way that Shults intends. But the guy just keeps piling it on, past the point of power or potency and into the realm of (oblivious self-)parody. (One misjudged gesture among many: using Kanye West’s comically hyperbolic “I Am a God” to soundtrack a passage of psychotic, murderous rage—sadly not including the line about the “damn croissants,” which of course gives the joke away.) The moment when everything starts going wrong for Tyler involves a piece of tissue stretched well past the breaking point, a rupture caused by stubbornness and egomaniacal overreaching—it is as good a metaphor as any for the movie as a whole.