WAVES is a film that sweeps you into its current and submerges you from the start before you even recognize what’s happening.
There is no testing the waters — the sensory-laden world crafted by director Trey Edward Shults does not dwell in the shallow end, but pulls you under with targeted fierceness.
The film is a story of a family dealing with the intricacies of life and loss. It rises with the introduction of Tyler, whose narrative guides the first half of the movie. The narrative that frames Tyler is not uncommon — he’s an athlete, has a beautiful girlfriend, and lives with a complex family dynamic that stems from his desire for his father’s approval. Although he is anchored by these things, Tyler brings a newness to what could’ve been another rehashed trope. The ways in which the audience is brought to connect with his space, both his mental thoughts and physical environment in his bedroom, makes the weight of his decisions sit heavy in your chest as you endure his highest highs and his lowest lows, which are bolstered by the side effects of growing up in the digital age.
In these moments, the audience begins to see the underside of the family dynamic play out as he sits in his room, sunk into his own thoughts.
WAVES is a universal story. It centers a black, suburban, nuclear family in South Florida and offers a unique perspective in the genre of coming of age movies. Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us, Black Panther, etc. ), who plays the father in the family, has his own hang ups, namely the lack of ability to create space for emotional latitude between himself and his son. Every moment feels true to life, and the literal waves — the peaks of emotion and the sinking tragedies — carry viewers up and down, a rhythm as unpredictable as it as captivating. WAVES is a film for 2019, that does not shy away from the music and actions of teenagers living in 2019.
The plot is dynamically threaded, highlighting the themes of family, addiction, love, growing pains, and the difficulty of child-parent relationships. No matter your perspective, there is a thread to pull and come away with something. In that way, it is up to you what you take away.
WAVES showcases the real-time ripple effect of trauma, as well as the familial healing process that takes place in all members individually and collectively. It delves deep into the range of emotions within a non-linear process of forgiveness, and its relation to the gray area between right and wrong. In the second half of the film, Emily, the daughter, emerges to guide the audience’s experience in these swirling tensions and idiosyncratic moments of peace, as she tries to connect the pieces for her family to come back together while dealing with her own trauma.
Before this, her role in the film existed in the shadow of Tyler’s life, only making an appearance to contrast their experiences — while he’s at wrestling practice, she’s practicing for the debate team. She and Tyler are not shown interacting much in the first half, a signal to their separate social spheres that only overlap at pivotal points in the film’s progression. This is also reinforced by a shared bathroom that separates their bedrooms, a recurring motif that moves in and out of the past and the present day.
Emily’s carrying of the torch while aided by her soft-spoken strength is the salve that works to heal the film into its completion. As she puts the pieces in order, works to hold everything together, and balances new relationships of her own, she is a reminder that even in the throes of grief there is new life that can be found.
While the film is heartbreakingly beautiful and relatable, there are moments that feel incongruent to the usual stereotypes of a black family, for better or worse. I found myself noticing at certain points how it felt as if I was watching white characters with white motives, who were housed in black bodies. It made me wonder what cultural nuances would have added another dimension to each black character’s motivations if it had been a black director telling the story.
WAVES is a film that is a reminder of the messiness of growing up, the power of choice and consequences, and the murky waters of grief and healing. It lifted me up, almost made me drown, but if asked to do it again, there would be no hesitation.