Riding it out: Familial clashes move Waves through a complex narrative

Parent-child relationships ebb and flow with intensity in Waves starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. Image courtesy
A24 Parent-child relationships ebb and flow with intensity in Waves starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, and Renée Elise Goldsberry. Image courtesy A24

Trey Edward Shults’ Waves is an ambitious next step for the writer-director of Krisha and It Comes at Night, balancing his atmospheric skills against a complex narrative of parental pressure, trauma, transgression, and redemption with overtones of race and class. It is very nearly a runaway success in all categories, as the cast brings life to layered characters and Shults’s stylistic flair is never gratuitous, always serving a narrative or thematic purpose. And while the film’s social commentary can be uneven, a deep sense of empathy is palpable. Shults’ good intentions are sincere and you will not leave the theater unmoved.

Waves is a story in two parts, following the Williams family before and after a shocking event. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a high school senior, a wrestler from a financially secure family with a loving girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). Pressure from his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) helps him excel, but cracks begin to show in Tyler’s stable life. A shoulder injury threatens his athletic career, and he treats the pain with stolen prescription pills. His girlfriend becomes pregnant, and decides against an abortion, and his furious reaction causes them to break up. The series of decisions that follow will devastate everyone permanently and irreversibly.


R, 135 minutes

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

The perspective then shifts to Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who has led an isolated social life until beginning a relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges). She finds some normalcy and reconnects with her father, so that when it comes time for Luke to face his own troubled relationship with his father, they can break the cycle of resentment and hate.

The main metaphor is front and center: no person is isolated from the waves created by the actions of others. Sometimes they’re big, sometimes they’re small, and sometimes we don’t notice them until we’re already drowning. Heightened moments frequently involve water and its many properties: redemptive, playful, loving, calming, and dangerous. Water has more than one characteristic, as do people. It’s always wet, we’re always human, but that has different meanings in different contexts, not all of them pleasant.

The most trenchant observation Shults makes is in the meaning of forgiveness. There is no taking back what happened, there is no ignoring the past, but there is also no changing it. Forgiving someone does not mean they are no longer responsible for their actions. It does mean acknowledging their humanity and freeing yourself of the hate you feel toward them. (This observation borrowed from Mr. Rogers; in a curious coincidence of unexpected overlap, I watched Waves immediately after A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.) No deed is undone, no punishment unserved, but through forgiveness, we can break the cycles that make us feel trapped—expressed visually with a change in aspect ratio, from wide and full of possibilities, to tighter, restricted, and suffocating.

As an analysis of rage and catharsis, Waves is excellent. As social commentary, it’s murkier. Through dialogue, it’s suggested that Ronald’s parenting is rooted in pressures he felt to excel, needing to work twice as hard to get ahead as a black man. Brown convincingly embodies this mentality, pushing Tyler so hard that he all but disregards Emily’s needs. Luke, on the other hand, was abused by his addict father, and constantly fights with his mother, but is emotionally present and attentive for Emily, and his father-son reconciliation comes quickly. This could be a statement that the racism experienced by previous generations still clings to people of color while white people have the privilege of moving on, despite socioeconomic status. If this is the message, it is made less emphatically then the film’s other themes, and as a result distracts from the film’s other qualities.

These questions aside, Waves is gorgeous to behold and devastating to experience, led by strong performances and contagious optimism.

Local theater listings

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056.

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213.

Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000.

See it again


PG, 97 minutes

December 14, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema

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