Waves is an absolute disaster, morally odious on top of being aesthetically confused. But to its credit, it couldn't be such a thoroughgoing failure if it wasn't swinging so hard for the fences. The movie's failure is absolutely not a failure of ambition: writer-director-editor Trey Edward Shults, making his third feature film, has approached this project with the seeming desire to make it do literally everything, and if, in the end result, it ends up doing nothing at all, I have to admire it for its fearlessness. This is a movie that doesn't merely run at top speed into a brick wall; it very obviously accelerates as it approaches that wall, as though through sheer force of will it might burst through.

The unmitigated excess of it all begins basically at the very start, with a staggering, stunning montage that shows Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), in all of his elements. He and his family - sister Emily (Taylor Russell), father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), stepmother Cathering (Renée Elise Goldsberry) - live in an upper-middle-class suburb in Florida; Tyler himself is a star athlete at school, a wrestler with terrific college prospects, to go with his widespread popularity. To demonstrate this, Shults, along with co-editor Isaac Hagy and cinematographer Drew Daniels, engage in an opening sequence that is just the god-damnedest thing. The film's first shot, unless I have forgotten something, finds the camera in between Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), sitting in the front of Tyler's car, listening to one of the seemingly hundreds of late-'00s indie songs that make up the film's aggressive soundtrack; the camera is slowly and steadily turning a 360° pan, moving from Tyler to Alexis to the empty backseat to the other half of the empty backseat to Tyler... you get it. And while it is doing this, the camera is also moving very slightly towards the front of the car, so it's not actually describing a circle, but more of an ellipse/figure-8 hybrid. This is an extraordinarily complicated thing to have set up; I cannot begin to explain what the hell it's doing there. But Shults and Daniels absolutely adored it, because several of the shots in the montage that follows are doing the same thing (not always with lateral movement beyond the 360° pan), in a variety of environments. Some of which are also automobile interiors. Oh, and while this is all going on, the colors are so saturated; I am not engaging in the smallest dollop of hyberbole when I state that I can't think of the last live-action film that had this many different colors and and cranked them up to such bold extremes.*

It's a whole lot. Too much, most likely, but while you're watching it that at least feels like there's going to be something to come of all this: if nothing else, a kind of free-floating, borderline-hallucinatory drift through Tyler's world and the rhythm and energy with which he inhabits it. This is not what Waves is about, and after it gets through this opening sequence, it's not going to bring back this particular style. Mind you, it brings in other style. This is a film with a great deal of style, in many different flavors. They do not especially try to interact with each other, and other than the omnipresent music and the brazenly strong colors, nothing is kept as a constant. But it is a film that's almost sweaty with the effort of how much style it has.

What it doesn't have, is form - the way that style is tethered to some kind of disciplined overall aesthetic strategy (except insofar as shamelessly ripping off Moonlight is a strategy). Instead, it just has scene after scene and shot after shot of pure sensory information banging into our eyes and ears at rocket-ship speed. It's awe-inspiringly messy. The aspect ratio changes four times; only once is there any sort of clear motivation for it. Camera movements, including those dazzling, disorienting pans, are dropped in all the time with no rhyme or reason. Sometimes it's harshly overlit with a ragged handheld camera, and just seconds later it's a strapped-down landscape shot with richly textured painterly light. It just goes, with the same devil-may care lack of connection between shots (or at least between sequences of shots) that you get in the more thoughtlessly spectacular films of Michael Bay.

For a while, I was willing to ride this out. I quickly gave up on any hope that Waves was actually going to build towards something, rather than just indulge itself in one extreme after another, but it's bracing to see something this gonzo in its enthusiasm for untrammeled visual kineticism, in an age where too damn many movies are content to subscribe to exactly the same grey-washed color palette and wall-to-wall medium close-ups. But then came... the script.

Good Christ, how much I hate the story Waves is telling. To go into with any specificity would constitute an unforgivable spoiler (or, indeed, multiple spoilers), but I think I can be vague. First, the film exists in three parts: a long opening, a long conclusion, and a short connecting segment in between. There are basically no points of overlap - stylistically, tonally, psychologically - between any of these, though this could in principle be a very productive, exciting disconnect. The reason that it's not is in small part because the second half story is pretty run-of-the-mill indie stuff, awkward hipster teens in love as the bullying soundtrack dictates how we feel about them (okay, so that's where the style overlaps). In much larger part, it's because the end of the first part and the bridge in the middle is so unfathomably misguided at a molecular level. By the midpoint of Waves, it has grabbed onto a whole laundry list of ultra-timely social issues: fathers who infect sons with toxic masculinity, economic precarity manifested through an urgent pursuit of athletic scholarships, male entitlement in relationships, drug abuse in general, drug abuse as a symptom of how we demand too much of our children, domestic abuse, the punitive way the carceral system is used. And since the Williamses are African-American, all of these themes are in a sense doubled, as race inflects every single one of them, sometimes profoundly. Shults is extremely unprepared to deal with that inflection in any case (not even when it comes to looking at punitive prison sentences!), but even when he genuinely seems to think that his movie has something to say, it's frankly disastrous. The film's middle is simply horrid, swirling all of these issues into a blender and treating them with a graceless lurch into confusing aesthetics - more confusing than the film has already been, I mean. It has the leering crudeness of an exploitation film dressed in the solemnity of the most achingly mournful social issues drama you could imagine, and it is infuriating; not least because the film isn't interested in pursuing it in anything but the most trivial way. As soon as the film bottoms out emotionally, it's already preparing to bring in Official Indie Cute Boy Lucas Hedges as a socially inept comic nerd. Basically, the film is playing with fire, and obviously wants credit for being so very brave that it's willing to handle all of these hot topics; but bravery isn't worth much when you've burned the house down in the process.

*It might be as far back as The Fall, in 2006, a film which Waves resembles in no other ways.