Still credit: A24 Films
“In select theaters now. Everywhere December 6th.”
Writer and Director Trey Edward Shults’ recently released film, Waves, tells the story of a suburban African-American family with all of the trappings of success: the house, the jobs, faith, and a golden child with promising athletic prospects; but the turmoil of secrets, unspoken truths, and growing anguish are on a slow boil beneath the surface.
The story is told with raw, brutal honesty leaving the audience wanting to pump the brakes on the frenetic pace at which the family is unraveling before their eyes. The expert use of lighting and camera motion matches that pace, painting a picture of a dark and foreboding danger as a teenager descends into quiet desperation and despair in the face of the loss of a promising athletic future, a growing dependence on drugs, a girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy, and a father’s unrelenting expectations.
Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning actor Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) delivers a powerful performance in his portrayal of a well-intentioned, but overbearing father who wants the best for his son but is unconsciously driving him to implode under the pressure of his expectations.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr., as Tyler, gives an equally powerful and poignant performance of the pain and loss of self-worth of a promising athlete who sinks into growing despair at the prospect of not being able to live up to his father’s unyielding standards and hopes for him.
As the domino-effect of Tyler’s choices propel him past the point of no return, the film peels back layer after layer of emotional dysfunction to reveal a shipwrecked family unable to find emotional support and solace in one another in the face of a wave of unfolding consequences.
Shults’ film masterfully depicts the family’s disconnected efforts to rise back to the surface beyond the tragedy that has become their lives. Renée Elise Goldsberry, as Catharine, who we discover late in the film is her children’s step-mother, addresses the imbalances she sees in her family, but is powerless to stop the resulting consequences as the lives of the children she has sought to call her own begin to descend in despair along with her relationship with her husband.
Taylor Russell, as the character Emily, who watches her family implode in the face of unimaginable loss, shines in a performance that captures with exquisite perfection the character’s tentative shift from quiet and utter despair to an emerging re-birth of hope. The scene between father (Sterling K. Brown) and daughter (Taylor Russell) highlights the pivotal point in the film when the two finally meet to talk and bridge the distance that has defined their relationship. Brown apologies to his daughter for his distance and tries to give words to the gaping hole that has been left in their lives. Drowning in her own pain, Emily comforts her father before releasing a flood of resentment and rage towards her brother mixed with self-blame and despair. And, in that moment, Sterling K. Brown’s character (Ronald) rises from beneath his own seemingly insurmountable pain and grief to comfort his daughter and point her from hatred to grace. His words of wisdom lead her to pass on the same encouragement to her newfound boyfriend, played phenomenally by Lucas Hedges, leading him to reconcile with and give peace to his dying father.
You can feel the dis-ease at which each family member navigates their own internal pain to give themselves permission to gasp their way to the surface and breathe again. You feel the emptiness, the gulf between the hopes that have been washed away and the grief and quiet despair that remains, as each struggles to find their way back to shore.
But in the wake of the waves that have pummeled their lives, a thread of faith and hope remains that reconnects and points them back to one another – forgiveness.