In Waves, from director Trey Edward Shults, a suburban African-American family faces struggle, then tragedy. Healing is surely needed, but in what power will they find it?
Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a demanding and domineering father. He describes himself as “the wise and noble father”. It is said lightheartedly, but we know it is not a mere jest. He expects perfection from his teenage son Tyler (Kevin Harrison Jr.), especially in his wrestling. Ronald constantly pushes Tyler, both physically and emotionally, to achieve.
Tyler is dealing with other pressures as well. He has an injury he keeps hidden from his parents. His girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) announces she is pregnant. His whole world is facing collapse, which will not sit well with his father. In an alcohol induced rage one night, Tyler tracks down Alexis at a prom party. They fight and the tragedy occurs that will tear this family apart.
The dynamic of these relationships (especially the contentious connection between father and son) give the first half of the film great energy and emotional power. Tyler, on whom this first half focuses, is obviously in a downward spiral. He senses no support from his father. Viewers may think Ronald is overly demanding, but we also sense that he is acting out of love to give his son the best possible world.
The second half of the film is a drastic shift in both focus and tone. It shows us the family in the aftermath of the tragedy. Ronald and his wife must deal with grief and anger, but that mostly plays out in the background. But their daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) becomes the real focus. Emily is Tyler’s younger sister. She is quiet and withdrawn, even more so in the aftermath of what happens in the first half. She lives in the shadow of her brother and his actions. Her parents are deep in their own issues. She feels abandoned.
We watch Emily as she slowly begins to come to terms with who she is. She is befriended by Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s wrestling teammates. He is not put off by her connection to Tyler. The two begin an innocent, tender, and romantic relationship that gives Emily a chance to grow, to love, and to feel love.
This becomes the beginning of restoration in her life, and perhaps also for the family as it searches out what it means to love each other in the darkest of times. Finally, Ronald knows that he must reach out to his daughter in a different way than the demands he placed on Tyler.
For all the turmoil and energy of the first half of the film, I personally found the subtlety and quiet of the second half to be far more powerful. It allows us to see that even in the darkness that seems to overwhelm the family, there can still be hope if they continue in love—and more importantly, find ways of sharing that love with each other.
It is not an accident that in an early scene when the family is in church, the pastor reads from 1 Corinthians 13 about love. In that scene, the words just seem to wash over the family, but later that becomes a seed that may blossom in their lives.
Photos courtesy of A24.