Great expectations – that’s what nearly everyone experiences. But this is a double-edged sword; it’s not just what our parents expect of us, but also what we expect out of the world. But the world is unpredictable, and being able to navigate the changing tides is what truly marks development. That’s at the heart of Waves, a film that is as viscerally engaging as it is emotionally compromising. Director Trey Edward Shults pulls no punches in crafting a film that revels in its reversals and changes in tone because that’s what life can really feel like.
We follow the Williams clan, an affluent African-American family in South Florida. But our primary focus is on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who’s a senior in high school and seems to have everything going for him. He’s an ace on the wrestling team, a standout on the football squad, all while maintaining a relationship with the beautiful Alexis (Alexa Demie). But this showy display of fortune belies some real issues, mainly that Tyler’s father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is putting a strenuous amount of pressure on Tyler to excel in school and in sports.
We see them workout together, make “game faces” in the mirror together, and we see Ronald’s stern urgings to Tyler to be responsible, lest he ruin the small opportunities he has as a black youth. But we don’t see Ronald connecting with his son on a personal level. Just as alarming, his daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) and wife Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) are treated as background characters. This is all by design as it becomes clear what the film is really about, and the innate flaws our characters have to overcome.
I can’t talk about what the film is about on the surface, but underneath it’s about understanding how our choices and our environment lead us to our current situation. We’re often prone to blame a parent, a spouse, a co-worker, a friend, or a lover. But sometimes the best we can do is look at our own variable in the equation, make changes, and strive forward while hoping we can do better. It’s about having compassion for our loved ones and hoping that they return the gesture.
This is all heavy stuff, especially if we were to get into the details of the film’s plot. But Shults knows when and where to place moments of joy to make sure his film never becomes too much to handle. This starts from the opening sequence, a montage of 360 shots as we’re introduced to the principal characters. Not only is it one of the most memorable sequences of 2019, but you can feel the adrenaline shared by Tyler and Alexis. But Shults isn’t unnecessary flashy – his camera’s method always has a purpose, and can be just as content settling into steady close-ups or unique perspective shots. It’s not about what you can do, but communicating to the audience why you’re doing it.
But the film’s style is merely a supporting player for the performances themselves. The actors envelope themselves into these roles to the point that Sterling K. Brown, the actor we’re most familiar with here, feels like a different person. He’s not doing This Is Us on the big screen, he’s going down new avenues that go against type. His portrayal of Ronald is at times stern, silently intense, viciously domineering, and grippingly sad. It deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but there’s no guarantees when it comes to the Academy.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is asked to do the most here, and he mostly delivers. He embodies a teenager who just doesn’t know how to deal with life’s many challenges. His portrayal of Tyler also comes off as one of the dumbest characters I’ve seen in the past year, although that’s probably not intentional. What is intentional is the naivete of the younger characters, who are going through a litany of emotions, but lack the vocabulary and wisdom to express them, and the experience to deal with them.
Eventually, the ladies get more of a stage to shine. Demie is playing in a similar wheelhouse to her character in HBO’s Euphoria, as she once again has to balance her own needs versus the harsh demands of a trying relationship. Her lack of extensive dialogue does not signal a lack of depth. Rather, she adequately plays a character that is in some ways an unmarked canvas because she’s a teenager who hasn’t had a chance to paint that canvas yet.
This also applies to Tyler’s sister Emily, whose shyness is just barely eclipsed by her concern for her troubled family. It takes a while for the film to explore her character, but what we eventually witness is a woman who gets to take back her joy of life by finally speaking up about what she knows is wrong. Kudos as well to Goldsberry, who has to play the family matriarch but gets the least amount of screentime to make an impression. But she still does make an impression, which is even more impressive when we learn of her true dynamic in the family; when this is revealed, it makes her character’s love for her children feel even more real and admirable.
Perhaps those are adjectives to describe the entire film. This is a story where there really isn’t a “resolution” or a traditional Hollywood ending. Each major character gets a chance to express what’s ailing them, but we’re really not meant to take sides. Instead, we’re encouraged to observe and identify with each individual as a human being. So in a way, there is conflict but not the kind that inspires a rooting interest. Some of these characters are not redeemable, but they each have a story worth telling.