Trey Edward Shults seems a bit stressed out. The writer / director’s first two dramas, Krisha (2015) and It Comes at Night (2017), were so emotionally taxing that each ticket sale should have included a Xanax. Those stories followed people breaking underneath severe life pressure, some of their own doing and some not, and the dizzying camerawork transformed mundane tasks like cooking a Thanksgiving turkey (as seen in Krisha) into earth-shattering crises.  

Shults’ latest, Waves, indeed spends a considerable amount of time in panic mode — forcing high-school senior Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) through extreme mental duress as his family life, romantic relationships, health and college prospects begin to crash down around him. But for once, this filmmaker gives his subjects the chance to heal, and Waves ultimately emerges in a far more warm and hopeful place than expected.

It’s also Shults’ most ambitious effort to date — a straight-up tearjerker balancing an ensemble of complex characters, interconnected subplots and clashing tones. The movie’s heart rests firmly on its sleeve. It’s frequently manipulative and heavy-handed in delivering its messages; still, it somehow works. The stunning visuals and raw performances cement this among 2019’s best films. 

The story’s first half concentrates on 18-year-old Tyler, a diligent but overworked kid currently overwhelmed by the looming threat of graduation — and the monumental life decisions that come along with it. His biggest supporter and source of strain is his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), a physically hulking and stern authoritarian raised in poverty who never lets his kids forget how lucky they are or how fortunate their family is to live in their posh suburban house within a renowned school district. Tyler doesn’t say much; he doesn’t need to. Cinematographer Drew Daniels applies extreme close-ups and woozy camera movements to communicate Tyler’s frantic state of mind. Unsurprisingly, composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a haunting ambient score that serves as a fitting backdrop to Tyler’s downward spiral. 

Knowing Shults’ previous work, audiences might expect things to end there as no more than an exercise in human misery and anxiety. Instead, Waves shifts its thematic focus from the pressures of living up to others’ expectations and into a story about the healing power of forgiveness. Without missing a beat, the film evolves into a cathartic experience; one that ponders the weight of people’s decisions — decisions we oftentimes make in the heat of the moment as well as how we choose to cope with situations beyond our control. 

It’s easy to imagine that upon release, many filmgoers may reject Waves for its lack of subtlety. On several occasions, a person will simply recite one of the themes in case the viewer didn’t put two and two together. And sure enough, Kanye West’s “I Am a God”  plays over a sequence where Tyler’s reckless behavior finally pushes him over the deep end. The hipster boi soundtrack — with featured artists ranging from Frank Ocean to Animal Collective — is always enchanting but can occasionally come off like watching a music-video demo reel. 

Tyler’s family, particularly his teenage sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), and Ronald, become central characters throughout the last hour. A pivotal conversation takes place during a fishing outing in which Ronald tearfully confesses he’s just as frightened and insecure as his son. Sterling K. Brown, along with an ensemble including A24-darling Lucas Hedges, are doing phenomenal work; without their naturalistic, understated performances, the material could have veered into absurd melodrama. 

Shults formed his filmmaking as a literal student of Terrence Malick, working in the editing room for 2011’s The Tree of Life. Waves might not be as grandiose as that masterwork, but it’s certainly just as earnest. The guy is clearly taking massive chances, stepping out of his comfort zone as a storyteller and visual artist. It’s an honest-to-God miracle those risks continue to pay off.