It’s rare that the film you least expected to ends up consuming prime real estate in your mind as much as writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves” has. This quiet festival darling in the guise of a humdrum family drama boasts a top-notch cast — including Renee Elise Goldsberry (“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”), Sterling K. Brown, and Kelvin Harrison, Jr. — and tension as tight as a rubber band.
To call “Waves” a pressure cooker would be underselling it. Shults provocatively examines black masculinity and the burden of living up to a societal standard, as well as a parental one. He accomplishes this through the story of Tyler (Harrison), a high-school star wrestler who initially seems like an average teenage boy. He has a cute girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie, “Euphoria”). He parties, does some drugs — but apparently not enough to throw him off his wrestling game, God forbid. And like many young men, he shakes off a potentially life-altering shoulder injury as a sign of weakness. Because that would be unacceptable.
In other words, Tyler has got everything in control. At home, though, he is a ticking bomb, just waiting for his dad Ronald (Brown) to pop off about, well, anything. Harrison, similar to his equally stunning portrayal in “Luce” earlier this year, is well equipped to handle the dichotomy of being a confident, fully dimensional young black man who is simultaneously dehumanized as a promising symbol of black exceptionalism.
Tyler often finds himself thwarting interrogations from his father such as, “Have you finished your homework?” shortly after he steps in the house from school. “Then what are you waiting on?” Ronald asks after Tyler says no, explaining that he was just saying hello to his stepmom Catharine (Goldsberry) in the kitchen.
Ronald constantly tests Tyler’s mental and physical agility, which creates a nervous energy around father and son. This is intensified by Brown’s unwavering gaze at Tyler, and Shults’ tight shots of both of them, even when they are standing just inches apart. It makes Ronald’s mere presence claustrophobic and antagonizing, even when they’re doing something as innocuous as arm wrestling when the family, including little sister Emily (Taylor Russell, “Lost in Space”), is at a diner having breakfast.
Shults establishes this sense of suffocating patriarchal authority in these early moments. Despite the fact that Catharine has a great job of her own, it is Ronald who displays pride at affording a large house in what looks like the suburbs, sending their kids to a great school, and making sure they do well. As he icily informs Tyler, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”
We can only presume that Ronald’s militant approach to perfection has a lot to do with how he was brought up and his own feelings about black respectability in largely white spaces, an anxiety he is hellbent on instilling in his son. But that would be conjecture, as Shults never clearly defines whether something from Ronald’s past made him like this. We only know that his ex-wife, Emily and Tyler’s mom, died of an overdose, which likely heightened his expectations for his children, especially Tyler.
Like many sons of domineering dads, Tyler seems to be managing the relationship as best he can. But when Alexis tells him she’s pregnant and keeping the baby, the news sends him into a tailspin. Suddenly, Shults’ narrative goes from a marginally contained drama to a rage-filled, violent tale that finds Tyler in a rapid downward spiral that sends him to prison. In the wake of Tyler’s horrifying act, the grief-stricken family is so splintered that Catharine, especially, struggles to make sense of what happened, settling on how much pressure Ronald put on Tyler.
It’s a tricky conclusion at which to arrive, especially because it deflects from a necessary conversation about Tyler’s instability and culpability. Add to that the optics of a black patriarch who has unsuccessfully gone out of his way to prevent anyone in his family from becoming a vicious stereotype. But strikingly, Shults doesn’t spend time delving into these implications, choosing instead to pivot towards a narrative where the characters more poignantly grapple with trauma and guilt that overwhelms them.
In what looks like an entirely separate chapter of “Waves,” only thematically tied together by the continued use of Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes” amid Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ appropriately breathless score, Shults shifts to Emily’s progression. Throughout the film, she is like an emotional receptacle for men struggling with demons — Tyler in the first half and Ronald and new boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges) in the latter. In this explicitly father-son tale, the central female characters bear the brunt of all the things left unsaid by the two problematic men in their lives.
Shults somewhat smooths that out with Emily’s epilogue, which highlights her journey toward happiness. That’s punctuated by a relationship with a man who loves her unconditionally, one who helps her to release some of the regret she feels, move forward, and encourage her family to do the same.
“Waves” isn’t an easy film to digest, and it’s not without its flaws — Emily’s narrative at the end makes it a bit disjointed, and Tyler’s story never feels resolved — but it stays with you mostly because of its shattering performances that bolster Shults’ story. By the third act, both Emily and Ronald take steps toward forgiveness and restoration after an irrevocable event threatens to rip their family apart.
And to his credit, Shults ultimately steers the audience toward healing and evolution. That’s the most you can look for after experiencing an agonizing story like this.