In 2011, a Reddit user came to the site asking for advice on how to deal with his best friend’s passing. In a response that quickly went viral, a user by the name of GSnow wrote, “As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves.”
Eight years later, that sentiment has manifested itself in Waves, a sometimes meandering and idealistic testament to forgiveness and how it can so often be at odds with the ripple effects of grief.
Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is your average all-American high school senior. He’s a star on the school’s wrestling team, with dreams of going to college; he has a The Life of Pablo poster in the corner of his moody blue bedroom; he has a beautiful girlfriend (Alexa Demie in her first major role since Euphoria). But it’s revealed early on that he is grappling with personal demons.
Those demons come in the form of intense aggression and compartmentalized emotions instilled in him by his commanding father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). Their relationship is built on competition exemplified by their daily routine of lifting weights and comparing their strengths, trying to physically assert dominance within the household.
This prioritization of assertion over emotions comes with a cost when, after Tyler’s shoulder is severely injured early in the wrestling season, he bottles up his pain and continues to push himself until he is physically and emotionally broken beyond repair—taking his father’s painkillers instead of getting surgery and partying with his friends without acknowledging his drug use and injury.
Waves is most insightful when it gets at the heart of Tyler’s psyche—one that has been irreparably damaged by the confines of compulsory masculinity that encourages young men to put on a facade of bravery and strength instead of confronting real vulnerability.
This bottled-up turmoil frames how Tyler interacts with everyone in his life, but it’s the women who get the brunt of it. He punches a hole in his wall to Tyler the Creator‘s “IFHY” after getting in a fight with his girlfriend; his aggression towards his father is often pointed more at his stepmother (Renée Elise Goldsberry); and when he comes home drunk and broken after nights out partying, it’s his younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), who picks up the pieces.
The individual and interpersonal tensions are raised at a breakneck pace, as are the stakes, which are amplified through jarring camerawork and a restless original score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (Nine Inch Nails, The Social Network). All of these elements work in tandem to make it feel like a ticking time bomb just waiting to go off. And when the bomb finally does explode, the family is forced to deal with the rubble.
It’s at this moment that one wonders what the ramifications are for this depiction of Black masculinity, especially coming from a white filmmaker. When for so long young Black men have been represented in media as “aggressive Black males”—and those representations have had real world impact—at what point does narrative become exploitation?
Shults is less concerned with investigating the role race can have and instead hones in on the proposed universality of the film’s larger thesis—the importance of letting oneself emotionally heal in the aftermath of trauma.
This is executed in a wandering and sometimes tonally confused back half, switching haphazardly from its own challenging intensity to mostly shallow vignettes that feel straight out of a teen rom-com. But the film grounds itself in the character of Emily as she reconciles with her own pent-up anger and tries her best to find a way to forgive her brother. The performances in Waves are some of the film’s most reliable strengths—but it’s Russell who is a clear standout.
Despite some flaws in the narrative, elements of the film are masterfully crafted. The cinematography is mesmerizing and the emphatic sound design is the beating heart, soul, and guts of this film.
At its best, Waves makes its audience think complexly about the ways our own behaviors have been shaped, for better or for worse, by the people in our lives and how we, in the same way, can shape the people around us. At its worst, it gets in its own way and muddles that message by presenting itself as a long-winded and directionless music video.
“And when [the waves] wash over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side,” GSnow wrote. “Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.” v