Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Tyler), Lucas Hedges (Luke), Taylor Russell (Emily), Alexa Demie (Alexis), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Catherine), Sterling K. Brown (Ronald)
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Writer Trey Edward Shults
Cinematographer: Drew Daniels
Editor: Isaac Hagy
Composer: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross
Genre: Family Drama
Rating: R for language throughout, drug and alcohol use, some sexual content and brief violence-all involving teens.
Run Time: 135 minutes
In Waves, writer and director Trey Edward Shults tells a heart-wrenching story about a family dealing with tragedy. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a thriving teen living in South Florida with his shy younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), loving step-mother, Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and stern father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). The film introduces Tyler with a montage that shows him crackling with youthful energy. His days are packed with school, sports, and spending time with friends and his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). Drew Daniel’s cinematography beautifully channels the energy in these scenes — the camera spins 360 degrees in Tyler’s car as he and Alexis cruise by the oceanfront, or tracks Tyler as he runs, or flips over as he wrestles a sparring partner to the ground.
Tyler is disciplined and focused, but Ronald puts enormous pressure on his son. The pair have a tough love relationship that Ronald says is meant to teach Tyler he will have to work harder to be successful because he is black. We see Ronald and Tyler compete with each other in arm-wrestling or weight-lifting, but bond over little else. Ronald seems like a copy of Tyler’s coach at school, a man who leads his wrestling squad in chanting, “I am a machine, I cannot be taken down.” Both figures feed Tyler’s ego without showing him how to cope when his ego gets hurt.
A prognosis about a shoulder injury is the blow that sends Tyler crashing down. He ignores his doctor’s advice to stop wrestling and pops his father’s painkillers until his shoulder gives out. Then, Tyler finds out his girlfriend is pregnant. They argue about keeping the baby — he wants an abortion but she can’t bring herself to do it — and Tyler’s bottled-up anger bursts forth. Tyler tries to exert himself over circumstances outside his control and ends up making a series of bad decisions that lead to the film’s tragic climax. The gymnastic camerawork the film began with becomes sluggish and shifts to a smaller aspect ratio to mirror Tyler’s fracturing psyche.
Tyler’s downward spiral marks the end of the first half of Waves and the transition to the second half from Emily’s point of view. The structure is similar to a novel, with a tragic event that breaks up the narrative into two halves and shifts the perspective from one character to another. Emily’s quiet thoughtfulness in the second part of the film gives the impression of a wave that has recently crashed onto shore receding back into the calm of the ocean. Being able to see from Emily’s perspective also deflates the hyper-masculinity that pushed Tyler to the breaking point.
Emily is a sea change from her brother, as his bravura gives way to her reticence. We see her spend a lot of time alone and we learn that she deleted her social media accounts because of the backlash her brother’s actions caused. Eventually, a young boy named Luke (Lucas Hedges) earns Emily’s trust. The two develop a genuinely caring relationship, fortified by their shared understanding that family can hurt just as much as it can protect. The wave recedes farther from the place it crashed as Emily and Lucas help each other heal from the scars of the past.
Waves is a film that rewards patience with a powerfully moving story, stunning camerawork, and solid performances. Shults doesn’t rush through the emotional highs and lows. He takes his time and give us space to absorb each moment. On a technical level, the film is visually mesmerizing and feels like someone’s vision translated onto the screen. The camera shots feel like unique and deliberate choices made to convey something more — a mood, an energy, an interiority — about what is explicitly being shown. Harrison Jr. gives a visceral performance as Tyler, but Brown and Russel as Ronald and Emily have arguably the most meaningful interaction in a scene where the father admits his failings, affirms his love for his daughter, and recites a biblical passage that describes the moral undercurrent of the entire film: “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses.”
Shults bookends Waves with a shot of Emily riding her bike down a gravel path shaded by trees on either side. We hear Emily’s breathing, and the repetition of it signals the cresting, crashing, and receding of the film’s main motif. It reminds me of what Hemingway, no stranger to tragedy himself, wrote in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”