Film & Theater The Arts

Seeing Ourselves in “Waves”

CJ Quartlbaum

I didn’t know what to expect going into “Waves” but I walked out of the theater feeling a heavy mixture of emotions.  This film will do that to you. “Waves” centers around a Black family living in suburban Miami. The family is headed by Ronald, a domineering father, played by Sterling K. Brown.

At first, you get some serious “This Is Us” vibes from Ronald that would make you think Brown is simply being type-casted. That theory changes very quickly. You realize this isn’t the Randall character from “This Is Us.” Ronald is a completely different man. Ronald is stern, hard, often cold, but just as passionate.

Ronald has two children: Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell). Tyler is a star on the wrestling team and Ronald pushes him hard. Many of their early interactions are centered around Ronald pushing Tyler to the limit: at school, the weight room, and wrestling techniques. His wife, Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is much more compassionate.

Ronald pushes his son so hard because he understands the uphill battle he faces with being a Black man in this world. In one gripping scene, Ronald says to Tyler: “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.” I believe this is a line that resonates with Black audiences everywhere.

Remarkably, this is not a movie about race. It is a film about a middle-class family that is going through difficulties and they happen to be black. It’s what many of us have longed for: a movie that tells the story of Black people that isn’t about slavery, race, the hood, or poverty. This could have easily been a white, Asian, or Latino family.

The narrative centers around Tyler’s downward spiral. The pressure of being a star athlete, pleasing his parents, and problems with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) lead to his downfall that also exposes the cracks in Ronald and Catharine’s marriage and highlights the invisibility of his sister Emily.

His trajectory is beautifully shot by director Trey Edward Shults. It is full of blurry, dizzy, and flashy shots that are designed to make you feel what Tyler is feeling; the anxiety, frustration, and anger are all in Shults’ style of shooting.

Through the first half of the film, Emily is just there. After Tyler’s downfall, the story shifts to her. She is a high school student trying to find herself while her parents deal with the aftermath of her brother’s trouble and their crumbling marriage. Those of us who have felt invisible find a home in Emily. She is fighting for identity and understanding in a world that doesn’t always acknowledge her.

Emily’s portion of the movie is shot differently from Tyler’s. It starts off dark but is eventually brighter. As she starts to find herself and rediscover joy, the mood in the shots become happier. It is much less of the whirlwind than Tyler’s scenes and more of a gentle ride.

This film reminds us of how hard it can be to navigate family trauma. This is a church-going family but when things get hard, their faith doesn’t play a part in their lives at all.  There is a minor conversation between Emily and her boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges) where she says her grandfather was a pastor but implies that church is just a thing she does. This exposes a sad truth for many of us. We go to church because it’s what we do (Ronald’s father was a minister) but when the waves of life come crashing, there is no actual relationship with Jesus to stand on.

This movie is a fascinating and emotional ride. Every actor pour their hearts out in their roles. The overriding themes of this movie are love, forgiveness, growth, and unity as a family. There is something for everyone here. In some way, we have all navigated similar issues.

That is what makes this film a must-see. It is the “every man” story, the type of story that most people can relate to in some way. It’s especially special that these people are Black. They show that we feel and experience all the same things as everyone else even though race is not the focus of the movie. “Waves” pulls on all the emotional strings without being overbearing or cheesy. Go see it. You will not regret it but please bring tissues with you.


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