I don’t quite remember what I expected out of “Waves,” director Trey Edward Shults’s (“It Comes at Night”) latest A24 film. Its promotional material is frustratingly vague, describing the plot of the movie as nothing more than an African-American family in Florida coping with a “loss.” I realize now, though, the reason for this. To reveal anything more about what happens in “Waves” would spoil the movie and dampen the sheer force of its impact.
I wasn’t prepared for this movie. I wasn’t ready. I was crushed by it, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. So I won’t say much more about the plot either, to ensure that you may watch the film unfold in the same way I did. But I can write about just how incredible this film is and how alive it made me feel.
“Waves” is a film consisting of two acts, the first taking place before the big “loss,” the second occurring afterward. The first act centers around Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., “It Comes at Night”), a more-or-less typical high school senior dealing with more-or-less typical high school problems. He is supported by a loving step-mother (Renee Elise Goldsberry, “One Life to Live”), a devoted, though admittedly over-aggressive, father (Sterling K. Brown, “This Is Us”) and a shy but loving younger sister (Taylor Russell, “Escape Room”). He loves wrestling and his girlfriend (Alexa Demie, “Euphoria”), and though these perfect parts of his life are tainted by a severe sports injury and a pregnancy scare, his life is still, for the most part, normal, at least by American standards of teenhood.
It’s still riveting to watch. Tyler’s world, gorgeously filmed and set to a wonderful soundtrack, including songs by Kendrick Lamar and Animal Collective, is endearing — it pulls you right into its atmosphere. Shults does a rare, extraordinary thing: He films the contemporary American teenage experience with warmth and honesty and a complete lack of judgement.
Yet, just when you think Tyler’s arc is about to be resolved, the very worst happens. The “loss” I keep hinting at finally occurs, and it’s worse than you could ever have possibly imagined. A character we’ve come to know and trust does something so horrifying, so devastating, you ask yourself, how will this family ever recover? How can they possibly go on? How can they ever smile again? How can we ever smile again? All of a sudden, this family is broken, the aspect ratio shifts and the world is changed forever, transformed into something scary and cold and impossibly lonely.
But then Luke, played by Lucas Hedges (“Boy Erased”) comes along and makes everything better. Not perfect, not back to the way it was before, but better. He makes us smile again. He gives Tyler’s sister Emily, the star of the movie’s second act, a new lease on life. He provides her with an escape from the oppressive grief that now holds dominion over her parents and home life. By being with him, by being held by him, she finds a way to heal, or at least a way to begin to work toward healing.
Emily and Tyler’s parents find a similar solace in one another, though it takes time, and they actually come to resent each other and place their anger onto each other immediately following the loss. But once they are finally ready to confront each other’s guilt and pain, they readily fall into each other’s arms, just like Emily and Luke did.
Maybe “Waves” is too sentimental, too melodramatic for some. But is that such a bad thing? I’m reminded of a quote by the writer Jeanette Winterson, who wrote that “to tell someone not to be emotional is to tell them to be dead.” Watching “Waves” and second-handedly taking on this family’s pain was painful. But I also felt these characters’ joy and their incomparable love and devotion for one another. Watching “Waves” feels like anything but being dead, and I’ve never felt more alive while watching a movie.