Waves is one of the more aptly titled films I can think of from recent memory. Superficially, it refers to the film’s setting near the beaches of Miami, FL, but thematically it signifies the ebbs and flows of family life and coming-of-age in times of hardship.
The first part of the film is about Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a star-making performance). When we’re introduced to Tyler he’s riding the crest of youth: he’s 18-years-old, a star athlete, has a beautiful girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie, who is also great but given considerably less to do), his family lives in a big house near the beach, and he’s about to graduate high school.
Over the course of Tyler’s arc we learn that riding high comes with a price, and it can all come crashing down and pull you under without flinching. An assemblage of poor decisions and mounting pressures begins to tear away at the visage of teenage “immortality”, and like many teenagers, Tyler is unprepared for the force of the undertow.
The second half of the film is about Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), coping with the aftermath of tragedy and her splintered family. Russell really shines and binds the film’s two halves together by carrying the weight of Tyler’s actions and, in particular, the possible ramifications of an important decision she makes in the first half of the film.
Narratively, that’s as much as I want to give away. The story leaves much ambiguity in its wake, partly by design and partly due to deficiencies in the structure. The script suffers from several cliches, most notably the domineering, drill-sergeant father, Ronald (played excellently by my new man-crush, Sterling K. Brown), and it gets bogged down in what some might term “misery porn”, the application of which I find dubious.
It’s a derisive term I’ve never used before and I found it coming up frequently when I was parsing reviews of the film. I wonder if those same reviewers applied that term amongst their effusive praise for films like Paul Schrader’s bleak First Reformed (2018).
The elements that some reviewers point to as unnecessary despair for Emily and her family failed to register for me. I found it refreshing that Emily takes center stage for the second half of the film as opposed to the guilt-ridden parent trope, which only briefly comes into this story. We rarely see films that show how traumatic events affect siblings from a singular perspective in the way director Trey Edward Shults conceived this narrative. Mom and dad are secondary and, at times, tertiary characters in Emily’s story, and the film resonated with me for that reason.
It’s a film told in two parts, though without a page break or clear definition of the passage of time between them. Reviewers have voiced their displeasure with the structure, but I would argue they’re simply too used to the three-act model typically used for standard Hollywood films and they were miffed when they had to wrap their head around something atypical. Films don’t have to follow a model and I’m glad this one didn’t.
There is a subplot wedged into the second half of the film about Emily’s boyfriend, Luke (Lucas Hedges) that feels forced and contrived, but the outcome of the subplot is imperative for Emily’s arc and that of her family. Without the resolution of Lucas’ plight we would be cheated of Emily’s growth and understanding of what family means. For me, it enhanced the themes explored in the film, even if it is a little on-the-nose.
Unfortunately, from a structural perspective, this reduces Luke and his issues down to a plot device solely in place to further Emily’s arc. So I can understand people having mixed emotions about the necessity of the device, but it didn’t bother me much.
On a technical level, I found the look and photographic elements of the film to be appropriately applied. Color swirls and hallucinogenic lighting run rampant through the first half of the film before Shults dials it back for Emily’s part of the story. I’ve seen complaints about the use of color flares and changing aspect ratios, but again, it didn’t detract anything from the film for me. Is it style for the sake of style? Perhaps. But for me it felt unique and real, for lack of a better term.
To put a bow on this I’d just say it’s imperative to find the positive. I won’t say there isn’t a lot of pain and misery, but there’s a powerful message within this film that I found important, especially considering the state of the world we live in today.
Stay positive, folks.