In Waves, a new film directed by Trey Edward Shults, Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays a high schooler whose life takes a downward turn. The movie is made up of two distinct parts, each centering on a different character. Waves takes on many issues with subtlety and realism, among them the failings of the criminal justice system, the pressures on Black parents, abortion, and fatherhood. While some fantastic performances and dead-on depictions of teenage mishaps give the film its shining moments, the drawn out transitions and directionless plot left me feeling unsatisfied and emotionally drained.
The first half revolves completely around Tyler Williams, a hard-partying jock with a tiger dad who pushes him to his limits, particularly in sports. We mostly see Tyler alone, punching things, taking drugs, arguing with his girlfriend, and, in one scene, playing piano beautifully. We are supposed to believe that Tyler is not a meathead, but instead a popular kid repressing his sensitivity. His repression is primarily due to his father, who repeatedly explains to him the duties of men: that he must be the rock for the family and turn his heart to stone. Issues of fatherhood and the way we teach men to behave are kindled by every interaction Tyler has with his macho father. Their stressful relationship — which is based around weight lifting and his romantic life falling apart — leads Tyler down a slippery slope awash in booze and blood.
We leave Tyler and focus on his sister, Emily, in the last hour or so, and here we finally get some of the levity needed to relieve the smothering ambiance of doom in Tyler’s life. In particular, Emily’s boyfriend, Luke, offers all of the great awkwardness in teenage romance that Tyler’s silicone, social media-oriented relationship lacked. A candle is lit for the possibility of true love in Florida, a glimmer of hope appears for the family coming together, and one of the most spectacularly underwhelming sex scenes is put on screen. But all this comes in the third act, and by now it’s hard to feel anything, whether that be sympathy for the characters’ struggles or delight at their successes.
The director is so good at building anxiety, even into normal speed bumps in life, that after an hour of spinning cameras and pan shots of chaos, it’s hard to salve your burnt nerves and cough up more sympathy for new struggles. The shots of Waves are the antithesis of the popular long scene style, and mostly chose to stay away from clearly pivotal moments, giving us a holistic view of the characters’ lives. In Tyler’s story, we see him going through the motions, whether it’s watching porn or taking his father’s pain meds. All of it seems to be building to something, but no single scene presents itself as crucial to the story. Another emotional drive in the film is what we hear. We hear a lot of bass. The score, done by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails, is a picnic basket of some of the best rap and alternative from the last decade. Frank Ocean provides the eerie and romantic backdrop for the scenes where Emily swims with manatees, drunk bros rap “Backseat Freestyle” by Kendrick Lamar at each other at a bonfire, and “I Am a God,” pounds through Tyler’s speaker as he fails to hold his liquor. The soundtracks serve not just to create an atmosphere, but also to reflect the different tastes of two siblings.
The main characters of Waves are Black and going through some hardships, but race is not the primary issue of the movie. The issue that approaches race most directly is the way the father pushes his son extra hard to succeed since he is a Black man.
This is a breath of fresh air in recent cinema. The characters are Black, and it’s a factor in their lives, but it doesn’t dominate their identity or their experience. Sadly, due to a lack of charm and organization, Waves overstays its welcome, becoming tangled in its cord, which is a real shame because it brings so much to the table but just can’t seem to tie it all together.