‘Waves’: An Electrifying Portrait of Black Affluence, Family, and Forgiveness in the Face of Tragedy
The A24 release by director Trey Edward Shults is a film of both brutality and compassion, depravity and grace.
In director Trey Edward Shults’ third film, Waves, the question of justice looms large. His first film, Krisha, dealt with the deep bitterness addiction can sow in a family. That film doesn’t seek to redeem or vindicate the eponymous character, an estranged mother in recovery rejoining the family for Thanksgiving: Her son, played by Shults, as well as the siblings and in-laws who raised him in her place cannot find it in them to fully accept and forgive her, precisely because of what the family has become as a result of her human error. Shults’ second film, It Comes at Night, also troubles over the question of failed parenthood: A patriarch protects his family in the face of an apocalyptic illness epidemic and destroys another family in the process. Waves is a graduation for the young filmmaker where forgiveness and action—rather than resentment and righteousness—are the responses to toxic behavior. The questions Shults asks of the film, and the way he answers them in the film, seem to address not only his own personal journey from Krisha to here, but also speak to a wider societal reckoning around crime and punishment.
All of Shults' films focus on affluent families who, even in the case of his apocalypse film, are relatively well-resourced and lucky (or “blessed” as I imagine they might say in Waves). What eats at them, however, isn’t only psychological—there are more easily identifiable issues, social, political, and circumstantial, that seem to encroach on a constructed upper middle class ideal. In Waves, this affluent family is also a black family, where the father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) does what he believes is best for his son, Tyler, who was once a “little black boy” and now, at 18, is grown. Ronald’s fathering is encouraging but never affectionate and often amounts to a coach-style bullying—Tyler (Kelvin J. Harrison), a wrestler, popular kid, and charmer with a steady girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), hustles towards an apparently well mapped future. The family attends church together, eats meals together, and carefully negotiates the degree of their involvement with each other, yet rarely do they ever truly speak.
In the background lingers Tyler’s quiet, introverted sister Emily (Taylor Russell) who is all but ignored by Ronald. It’s left to their stepmother, the warm and good-humored Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), to heed both children’s emotional cores. But, still, the portrait we see in the film is of a family that loves each other and of parents who invest significantly in their children. When things go wrong—including Tyler pushing through a serious shoulder injury, and much more that I won’t spoil—it’s easy to fault Ronald. But what Shults and Brown show us is a father who did, in fact, do his best, and a son for whom this “best” was beside the point. Waves is a film of both brutality and compassion, depravity and grace.
It’s also a film in which the family’s blackness is backdropped by a community premised on anti-black racism. Tyler catches a slur outside of a clinic; Emily has to verify that when her date says he’s never asked out anyone “like her,” he’s not referring to her race. Taking place in a wealthy suburban neighborhood of Florida, Waves’ cinematography and mood has been compared to that of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, which takes place in Liberty City—a neighborhood in Miami filled with housing projects—but after seeing Waves (and not just a trailer) I found this comparison to be shallow. Yes, there is an ocean bathing scene where Tyler and Alexis (who is Latina) hold each other in the water, but the scene’s tone and lighting are moody and eerie rather than soothing and spiritual. (We see the affection that courses between the couple but also the shallowness of their connection—they never talk to each other about their hopes, thoughts, and experiences as you imagine a genuinely close couple would. When Alexis does bring up her fear that she might be pregnant, Tyler does all he can to push through the discomfort rather than discuss it.) Like Moonlight, Waves deals with the generational pain that can fester in families, specifically black families, torn apart by addiction, but both the circumstances and ideas in each film are vastly different. Tyler is on the success train, hurtling towards what he believes, hopes, prays is a certain future; Emily watches on from her corner until we are allowed to see her.
Many of Tyler’s scenes are accompanied by a Kanye West-heavy soundtrack; Emily’s are met with more melodic music, like Animal Collective’s lullaby-like tunes (the movie opens to Tyler and Alexis singing along to "Flori-da-da," which, on the other side of the Animal Collective spectrum, is chaotic and hyperactive). The music heard and referenced in the film seems to speak to the predilections of the young black suburban middle class, from Frank Ocean to Vampire Weekend to the uptick of Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T. This is not to say that poor and working-class black people don’t listen to (and in fact originate) much of this music, but the soundtrack underscores the divergent conditions of (usually unstable) black wealth, and of perhaps connecting to an experience of blackness while being remote from a community of primarily black people. It’s an eclectic and buoyant soundtrack that also traffics in an unresolved, inconsistent flurry of emotion. Neither Tyler nor Emily seem to have the tools ready to discuss their feelings, and rely instead on rhythms and available mobility—driving, swimming, biking, running, wrestling—with their songs to guide them.
But then what happens to the little black boy when his father can no longer protect him? Waves approaches the question of criminality not from the insufficient yet increasingly popular space of innocence, but rather from a deeply moral space in which wrongdoing—even when horrific and consequential—requires something of us beyond hatred and vengeance. The moral ideas in the film are spiritual—Christian, specifically, but not dogmatically so—though the religiousness, disappointingly, does not gesture outwards: We never see the parents interact with other adults and Emily only seems to gain a friend when she meets her boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges). The family holds on to each other through a belief in something beyond themselves and their circumstances, but their sense of comfort remains insular. Instead of seeking a community outside of or even within their neighborhood, Ronald, Catharine, Emily and Tyler cast their lines to the sky. I’m curious to see where Shults will go next.