All we have is now.
Ronald Williams (Sterling K. Brown) tells his son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) what so many parents do: “You don’t know how lucky you are.” What are those words besides a pat on the adult’s back for providing a decent life for their child, though? To me they’re often a source of resentment on behalf of the son or daughter receiving them because they’re very much a deflection wherein the parent places blame for whatever is wrong on the kid’s shoulders. Rather than have a conversation and be emotionally present for his teenage son (he knows something is amiss), Ronald makes it about fear and disappointment. He drives Tyler to be better. He forces a survival technique he needed onto a son he’s admitted is lucky enough to not.
That’s what parents do. They project their life experiences onto the next generation without ever allowing themselves to understand the inherent differences that spill out into the economic, social, and political spectrums of our ever-evolving world. And while writer/director Trey Edward Shults focuses upon this father/son dynamic for the first half of his latest drama Waves because he experienced some of the same from his own dad, Ronald isn’t innocent when it comes to the treatment of his daughter Emily (Taylor Russell). His distance, silence, and ambivalence for what’s going on in her life can be just as damaging as the hands-on psychological bullying he performs on Tyler. Ronald may have the best of intentions, but that only blinds him further to the harm he’s caused.
The result is oftentimes scary to cope with because it shocks everyone. This family (rounded out by Renée Elise Goldsberry as stepmom Catharine) has insulated itself with the comfort of a big house, charmed life, and ample love, but it’s all exposed as superficial once we gaze below the surface. The kids still feel the pain of their biological mother’s death; Ronald allows himself to be emasculated by his wife’s success; and Catharine is taken advantage of by that ingrained toxicity. They’re only hiding these truths from themselves, though, since each is glaringly obvious to those of us watching. So when tiny cracks inevitably become visible, we know disaster is eminent. And it’s sadly only in the aftermath when they accept their role in its overwhelming carnage.
It’s the assumed imperatives that go first. Ronald implicitly believes he’s imbued his son with the notion that health and family are the basic building blocks of a successful life, but his actions don’t comply. Tyler instead hears the drum beat that prosperity is earned by defeating long odds. He sees wrestling as his meal ticket to college and thus ignores a doctor’s recommendation for surgery because Dad says you only do something if you can be the best. He sees his unencumbered freedom as the means with which to train, study, and excel along that path because Dad’s go-to punishment where re-dedication to goals are concerned lies in threatening the boy’s relationship with girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). Joy suddenly becomes a liability and it breaks him irrevocably.
Shults uses widescreen to depict Tyler’s rapid descent once his problems multiply beyond the scope of his narrow focus. His carefully laid plans are imploding before his eyes and he cannot see how his own selfishness is the culprit. Ronald can’t see how his own entitlement and false sense of superiority drove his son to that edge of oblivion either because life has gotten in the way. Maybe they used to sit down and actually talk, but their meals now consist of calendars and guilt trips. Their brief encounters in the kitchen devolve into petty games of control until their own smiles stop recognizing each other’s frowns. That’s when Shults switches to a claustrophobic full screen aspect ratio boxing everyone in as unavoidable tragedy seals the exits.
This opening half of Waves can be tough because you know where it’s going. You hope the conclusion won’t be as debilitating as it proves, but that’s the only way the second half can attempt finding closure through healing. Things might get muddy when you realize this Black family’s saga is coming from a White director, but Shults has explained that he embraced his cast’s voices to make certain their own experiences bled through his. Some moments are very clearly steeped in race (an epithet hurled at Tyler or Ronald’s words explaining how Black men and women must be perfect to even have a shot at success in America), but the overall expression of our flawed humanity resonates beyond it. The guilt, regret, self-loathing, and projection are universal.
As Tyler retreated within to nightmarish results, however, Emily takes the spotlight to flourish on the other side of their catastrophe. Always the afterthought—a wallflower of little consequence to both her parents and us—the shadow she’s contended with her whole life is still present (although in a much different form). So Emily remains on the outside looking in as Ronald and Catharine face a future unlike any they ever thought might arise. But now she’s ready to break free. The time to embrace romance (Lucas Hedges‘ Luke) and reject her place as a pawn at home has arrived so that she can finally matter. Luke sees her clearly and perhaps what happened might just force her parents to embrace the vulnerability necessary to see her too.
It’s this period of reckoning and rebirth that gives everything else purpose beyond reductive claims of unnecessary violence. That someone must die for this quartet to wake up to the errors of their ways is never an easy sell, but I do believe Shults handles it with enough empathy for us to accept its natural place in the story. Because the way these characters push each other to the brink does make what occurs possible. It in turn allows for the perspective through hindsight to strive to avoid repeating those same mistakes again. Shults can then also find a comparable parallel as far as families with difficult backstories go. Where Tyler and Ronald repressed their feelings despite love, Luke and his father (Neal Huff) find catharsis despite hate.
Emily is the connective tissue that’s no longer willing to stay silent on the sidelines. Russell becomes a surprise bright spot upon escaping her place as bystander to become the catalyst for recovery. With a stirring, heartfelt scene shared between her and Brown (who runs the gamut of emotions and the complex ways in which they are expressed beneath Ronald’s conditioned masculinity), we discover the hope that appeared to have been rendered forfeit. Goldsberry doesn’t receive as much screen time as the rest, but she steals every minute with an authentically outraged reaction to the unthinkable. And Harrison Jr. proves a lighting rod for good and bad. Since Tyler’s innocence was unwittingly lost long ago, he unfortunately has no clue how to conquer the futility that replaced it.
That same emptiness haunts them all no matter the façades worn to mask their pain. It eats at their resolve until they become helpless to the heavy tide crashing against their chests. Shults presents this fight with enough melancholic beauty to offset the tragic devastation left in its wake. His camera is forever moving (360-degree widescreen interior car shots portray kinetic happiness while abstract fields of colors in full screen consume it and leave nothing but dread) while the score juxtaposes energetic beats, emotional ballads, and hospital flat lines to augment that visual rhythm. The script then contrasts duty to the group (the Williams family as a presumed unalienable unit) with duty to the soul. The former’s lie leads to turmoil; the latter’s truth to a chance at peace.
courtesy of A24