Waves is the first non-horror film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults. His previous film was It Comes at Night, which is definitely a horror movie, and before that came Krisha, a drama about a family unraveling on Thanksgiving—so it’s basically a horror movie. Though Shults’ three movies have drastically different premises, they all share a focus on family. That’s not to say they’re family-friendly: Krisha ends with a disowning and It Comes at Night features some good old-fashioned familicide. Waves isn’t an easy watch either, for various reasons, but it does find Shults at his most hopeful.

The family at the center of Waves is the Williams, and they’re certainly wading through a lot. Tyler is a high school wrestler with a tear in his shoulder and an unplanned pregnancy on his hands; his younger sister Emily is shy, lonely, and feeling unseen; and the father and mother’s approaches to parenting are fruitlessly discordant. When Tyler’s life begins to spiral out of control, no one’s prepared to stop his momentum.

In contrast to his characters, Shults harnesses the momentum of the spiral, spinning his camera through the chaos with gleeful abandon. He and resident cinematographer Drew Daniels create a visual style quite unlike their previous work. The camera is in constant movement: circling the inside of moving cars, barely keeping the subject in frame as it bounces around a boisterous party, swiveling around spaces with the restrained rule-breaking of someone who knows the rules. The soundtrack and score, alternating between thumping hip-hop classics and throbbing compositions from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, ensure that the never-ending momentum is audial as well as visual. It’s propulsive, kinetic filmmaking—life as montage, amplified through speakers.

This does mess with the pacing a bit. Paradoxically, the fever dream of life rushing by makes the movie seem longer: after an hour has passed, it’ll feel like two hours of events have been sped through, leaving you too exhausted for the next hour’s worth of pain. It doesn’t help that Tyler’s character arc in the first half was less an arc than a free fall. His life is almost unbelievably terrible, worsening theatrically without a single moment of self-reflection or thinking twice. When Waves switches protagonists to Emily halfway through and gives her a more well-rounded story, it begins to feel like Tyler only existed as an example—structurally and thematically, Waves illustrates how the best and worst of life can occur simultaneously, and Tyler received only the worst for the purpose of parable. If directors were the gods of their stories, Tyler would be Job.

Eventually, though, Waves’ more relaxed second half circles back to humanizing Tyler. Shults establishes parallels between characters in Emily’s story and characters in Tyler’s, coloring humanity into what were previously narrative sketches of people. Waves is always concerned with universal emotion on an intimate scale—it’s practically Bittersweet: The Movie—but it’s not until the second half that every member of the Williams family gets a dose of sweet with their bitter. Previously, the movie parsed its bitter and sweet between protagonists, which made for more explosive drama but less convincing characters.

It’s an unwieldy movie, to be sure—the visual style becomes less exciting when Waves starts doing right by its characters—but after everything it puts you through, the optimistic notes of its closing feel earned and essential. Waves can perplex in the moment, but when it’s over, its humanistic goal becomes clear. It’s the cinematic version of finding meaning in past trauma during a protracted therapy session. Walk out the door revitalized.

★★★★   (4/5)