By Tim Jackson
Waves is a plea for mutual understanding, for acts of grace that transcend race, age, gender, and social status.
Waves, directed by Trey Edward Shults. Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema and AMC Boston 19.
As the credits begin for Trey Edward Shults’s film Waves, the camera is already in motion via an industrious montage pushed along by an aggressive soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. We see Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr) speeding over a causeway bridge, battling through a wrestling competition, and jogging at dawn. His father (Sterling K. Brown) pushes him hard to study, to maximize his workouts, and to show others respect. The wrestling coach leads the team in a chant: “I cannot be taken down. I am a new machine.” When he nods off in church to a sermon about love, pride, success, and community, Tyler is chided by his father: “Is this boring you?” Demands on him come from all sides. After Tyler learns that his previously injured shoulder cannot hold up through the current wrestling season, he hides the diagnoses from his father, choosing to rely on pain pills. “We aren’t afforded the luxury of being average” proclaims his dad, proud of their status as a successful, upper middle class African American family. Parental, social, and academic pressures bear down on Tyler: now his athletic future is uncertain. When his girlfriend reveals she is pregnant, and that she wants the child, Tyler begins to crumble.
As with Shults’s first feature, Krisha, the camera is an active presence in the narrative. Whereas the previous effort was a claustrophobic portrait of a woman’s breakdown, Waves examines the chaos and uncertainty of contemporary adolescence. Horrific mistakes are made; “waves” of trauma and its destructive consequences change lives. The second half of the film all but abandons earlier characters to focus on Tyler’s sister Emily’s emotional journey. Emily (Taylor Russell) is filled with pain. She stumbles into a relationship with a young white man named Luke (Lukas Hedges), who has his own considerable difficulties. Although we never meet his mother, Luke speaks of her with respect. His estranged father, a former drug addict, is dying. Both kids are struggling to mature in a world where confidence is hard to find and fate deals sudden, upsetting blows. Still, as the relationship deepens, the two move tenuously toward a form of redemption.
Shults’s jagged directorial style can be tough to watch. Disaster seems to lurk on the edge of every scene. Tyler, popular and athletic, feels he is being shoved toward his “bright” future by a father who is compensating for his own difficult past. He berates Tyler about “the opportunities you have that I didn’t” and gives lectures about how “you don’t know how good you got it.” These familiar refrains are more about a father’s needs — not his son’s. Race is not directly addressed; it is a quiet but insistent presence. Waves is more concerned with seeing how its characters find the strength they need to cut through the morass of trouble and dysfunction surrounding them.
Unlike the fevered earlier part of the film, the cross-racial romance between Emily and Luke builds to a mutual realization of life’s fragility. Pain is omnipresent, security is tenuous. We learn little of Luke’s father, except that he was an addict and violently abusive. Emily helps Luke discover the compassion in himself to face his dying father, which leads her to come to terms with her own trauma. The story’s dramatic simplicity is deceptive: this is a tangled journey through hellish emotional landscapes. Shults’s camera bears down on stricken hands, eyes, bodies; Waves records a world of inarticulate hurt in its young faces. At times, the screen dissolves into abstract color fields — it is as if the frame itself was overwhelmed by rage, remorse, and agony.
On one level, Shults lays blame on parents who don’t recognize the damage that can so easily be perpetrated on their kids. Indiscretions, small and large, buffet these kids about, like waves. Water is a strong visual presence. Scenes are set in or around the ocean; showers or bathtubs are ever-present. Attempts by Emily and others to wash away their misery and guilt are designed to leave viewers shaken, emotionally and physically. Fortunately, the director has found actors who are committed to his raw, visceral look at domestic breakdown. Waves means to shake us out of our complacency, our illusion that one generation is doing right by the other. Understandably, Shults offers no answers or solutions. Waves is a plea for mutual understanding, for acts of grace that transcend race, age, gender, and social status.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.