Waves. Opens Fri., Dec. 20 at Harris Theater, 809 Liberty Ave., Downtown. cinema.pfpca.org
Florida is an ideal setting for familial turbulence, because it has a physical and cultural climate that is constantly shifting. It’s a chaotic place, which is maybe why director Trey Edward Shults chose it as the location for Waves, a drama about the dark forces that can pull a family together, or drive it apart.
The film is split into two distinct parts, each with a different protagonist. The first focuses on Tyler, a high school senior with wrestling prospects and a pretty girlfriend. He seems to have everything going for him, except for a nagging shoulder injury. His domineering dad, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), pushes his son emotionally and physically. After learning that the shoulder injury is actually a severe tear that requires surgery and that he has to quit wrestling, Tyler doesn’t tell anyone, including his dad, as he feels his world start to crumble. The struggle is only exacerbated when his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) finds out she is pregnant. They go to an abortion clinic, but Alexis can’t follow through and wants to keep the baby. (I’m sure there are men capable of writing nuanced abortion clinic scenes, but Shults is not one of them.)
Tyler begins to lose his grip, sliding through the stages of grief over losing his good life, but focusing most acutely on anger. He yells at his parents, drinks too much, and punches a hole in his bedroom wall. On the night of the school dance, Tyler sees a photo of Alexis with another date and drunkenly drives to a party to confront her. Their fight ends violently, with repercussions that affect the rest of Tyler’s life, and his family’s.
Tyler’s outcome causes a cataclysmic shift in the family. His kind and quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell) is left to pick up the shattered pieces, mostly taking care of herself as her father and stepmom (Renée Elise Goldsberry), struggle to keep themselves, and their marriage, together. Emily begins dating a nice boy, Luke (Lucas Hedges) who is also one of her brother’s former wrestling teammates, and whose estranged father is dying. The two bond over shared emotional trauma. They’ve both had to grow up quick due to their family situations, but also find plenty of time to be teenagers together, hanging out at a diner and running through sprinklers on a golf course.
The past few years have seen an influx in Floridian movies that home in the specific look and feel of the place, like The Florida Project and Moonlight. But unlike those films, Waves´ aesthetic feels forced, carefully curated to the point of being obvious. One of Tyler’s angry scenes features the Kanye rager “I am a God.” The soundtrack also features Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Alabama Shakes, and other artists that feel like they were chosen more for their recognition than anything else. There are lots of shots of teens sticking their head or hands out of a moving car to show that they feel free.
It’s hard for me to tell what part of the movie’s flaws come from the fact that Shults, who is white, wrote and directed an intergenerational drama about Black masculinity. Again, it’s possible for people to effectively write what they don’t know, but something feels disconcerting about the way Shults chose to portray Black pain (and the way the most likeable man in the movie is white).
What weighs the film down the most is its commitment to its title; Waves has so many peaks and valleys that it starts to feel manipulative of the audience's emotions. Instead of an insightful drama, we get a melodrama trying to tackle everything at once. There are some strong acting performances, and any of the subplots and characters could’ve been their own complete movie. Instead, Shults tried to fit too many complex elements into one story. Waves tried to break from traditional form by creating a film that didn’t fit within a typical arc. Instead, it feels like he made two loosely connected, but ultimately disjointed films.