Sterling K. Brown in Waves.
Sterling K. Brown in Waves.
Screengrab: YouTube/A24






3/5 Stars


The story of a suburban family and how they navigate life and come together after a tremendous loss.


If there is one thing I can say about Waves it's that it constantly surprised me. From the very first scene to the last, it provided almost like a snapshot into the lives of this one family in sunny Miami. It is a brave and compelling film but does not always reach the emotional marks that it intends to, but it's still something that will stay with you long after the film is finished.

Waves is divided into two parts. The first part follows Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a star wrestler who balances his time between his sport, his family and his girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie). Everything changes when he is injured and is unable to wrestle anymore. He falls out with his girlfriend, antagonises his parents, starts abusing alcohol and drugs and spirals out of control. This results in a tragedy, which changes the family forever.

The second part follows Tyler's sister, Emily Williams (Taylor Russell), and how she copes post-tragedy. It begins with her being alone, having shut out her friends and family, and then slowly letting them back in as she enters into a romance with a classmate, Luke (Lucas Hedges). Both of these stories seem like they could exist on their own, but they weave together to tell the story of a family falling apart and then coming together again.

Kelvin Harrison Jr and Taylor Russell are sensational in their roles but in such different ways. Harrison is a whirlwind; his chapter of the film reads like you are on a rollercoaster. Everything is fast, bright, loud, and he seamlessly slips into this role, playing a promising Gen-Z student focused on making it to college and having fun with his friends. His hair is bleached blonde, and he immediately reminds you of every Frank Ocean stan you've met. Even when the story shifts, his performance becomes even more pronounced and you cannot help but marvel at it.

Russell, on the other hand, is gentler, softer, more precise. If Tyler displayed his emotions externally, then Emily shows hers internally. Similarly to the cadence of her voice, the film seems to slow down and soften. We see her retreat into herself and then slowly reveal more and more as her relationship with Luke blossoms. Russell is so subtle, but you can always see the pain of what she has been through written across her face. And in the one scene where she breaks down to her father, it is such a natural progression for the character.

The title of Waves seems to explain both characters. Tyler is like waves during high tide – lively, wild, crashing to the shore. Whereas Emily is like waves during low tide – quiet, gentle, unassuming, flowing slowly to the shore. In essence, they are two parts of one thing.

Tyler and Emily's father is played by This Is Us' Sterling K Brown and their stepmother by Renee Elise Goldsberry, famously Angelica from Hamilton. Ronald (Brown) is an overly domineering figure, especially in Tyler's life; he is constantly putting pressure on him to go harder. In comparison, Catherine (Goldsberry) is the supportive mother-type. Not much is said about how Ronald and Catherine got together and whether or not it was before the children's mother passed away, but it is assumed that Catherine helped raise them and they respect her as a mother figure. Both actors were perfectly cast as they have the range to portray the lighter character moments but especially the emotional scenes. I shed many tears during their scenes because these veteran actors just know how to bring emotions to the surface. There is one scene in particular where Catherine is sobbing, and I swear I could feel my heart break.

The way music is used in the film, it feels almost like another character. It reminded me a lot of the work of Luca Guadagnino and Euphoria in that it understood how teenagers have music as a constant companion. We are in the age of Airpods, of music keeping you company on transit, while you work, of it always being readily available. The soundtrack boasts the music of Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator, Kendrick Lamar, Kid Cudi and A$AP Rocky. The music does not feel like afterthoughts but peppered in to enrich the story.

Like many other films from the A24 production company (Moonlight, Midsommar, The Lighthouse) that made Waves, it is extremely aesthetically pleasing. The writer and director, Trey Edward Shults, provided an experience. The cinematography (done by Drew Daniels, who also does Euphoria) is so delicate, the spinning of the camera as Tyler is losing control to gently following Emily and Luke as they walk together. It's easy to get wrapped up into the film because Schults makes it a world of its own.

The film does not touch much on social issues, but it is there. The Williams family is Black and speaks to their experiences as being part of the middle class while still being Black. The parameters are different for them. Ronald reminds Tyler that he has to work ten times harder to be taken as seriously as his white classmates. And that is part of what adds to the pressure that Ronald puts on Tyler, and how Tyler and Emily react to his parenting.

Even though I found the film to be an artistic masterpiece – the cinematography, the soundtrack, the acting – what was not there for me was the story. It seemed jagged at parts, confusing at other parts, the shock moments caught me off-guard, and I didn't feel as if the film gave us adequate time to deal with the weight of the trauma before it was going onto something else. I wanted to see more interaction between Tyler and Emily to know how they affected each other. However, it is still an incredibly beautiful film about a family.


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