The thing about waves is that they sometimes surprise you with their strength. What starts off as something calming and full of beauty can turn into a tsunami, leaving devastation in its wake.
Waves, writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ third feature, is about just that. It’s about how life as we know it can change in an instant; it’s about the reverberating nature of familial pain, and how despite all the bad in the world, love will always be the ultimate healing force.
This is the type of film where it’s best to go in with just a faint mental sketch of the plot. Don’t dig for information beforehand; just go to the theater and let the story wash over you. With what is quite possibly the best ensemble cast of the year, just trust that you’re in good hands.
What I can say is that Waves is separated into two parts. The first half focuses on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a star high school wrestler who is all-consumed with his beautiful girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). But more than anything, he just wants to live up to his father Ronald’s (Sterling K. Brown) overwhelming standards. After receiving some life-changing news, it starts to become clear that the mounting pressure from both his girlfriend and his father is dangerously close to pushing him to his breaking point.
At its core, Waves is a gripping depiction of a middle-class African-American family trying to exceed the world’s expectations. Best known for playing Randall Pearson on the hit television show This is Us, Brown’s role here couldn’t be more different. Here, he’s all bulging muscles and wide, piercing eyes. As the domineering Ronald, Brown carefully balances aggression and warmth simultaneously. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” he tells Tyler early on. The context behind his words is clear: as black men, they need to work harder, be better, than the average person to reach their intended level of success. It’s a moment that sets us on edge — it softens Ronald, but at the same time, makes everything that is to come feel as inevitable as it is heartbreaking.
An operatic build-up of intense dread, the first half of Waves puts your senses on overdrive. The camera does a dizzying 360 while Tyler and Alexis drive recklessly on the causeway; flashes of neon accompany Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ blaring and brilliant score; aggression abounds as Tyler shouts the lyrics to a Kendrick Lamar song while on a drug binge.
And then everything comes crashing down.
The cinematic anxiety attack that Shults pulls off with the first half is tremendous on both a technical and emotional level, but it’s the introduction of the second half where he truly sticks the landing. Delicately paced and stripped of all the claustrophobic excess that came before it, the story shifts the focus onto Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). Living in the shadow of her brother, she’s quiet, sensitive, and tends to keep to herself. When she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges), a charmingly awkward and sweet classmate, Shults’ film turns into a tender and deeply moving story of redemption.
“Lord knows I’ve held on to way too much hate in my life,” muses Ronald towards the end of the film. It’s a particular gorgeous moment in a movie overflowing with them — a defiance of the toxic masculinity that plagued father and son in the film’s first half, and a step towards emotional healing. Waves tears us down, no doubt about that. But by the end, Shults wraps us up in his arms and – despite all odds – helps us see the light.