Waves is a cinematic masterpiece. The film starts and ends with calm steady breathing, but everything in between the opening and closing credits is thoroughly heart-wrenching.
The story focuses on how an upper middle-class black family living in present-day Florida responds to a tragedy. It interweaves themes of worthiness, masculinity, motherhood and family love to tell a story that is engaging and relatable.
The cast is composed of all-stars and up-and-coming actors including Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton, the musical), Taylor Russell (Escape Room) and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Luce.)
Like so many narratives, the family dynamic that seems serene and idyllic on the surface is disturbed with depth and complexity in the first few scenes. As the metaphor in the title suggests, the waves of turmoil that wash over the family are triggered by deep, underlying currents of lived trauma and reactions to external forces.
Brown plays Ronald, a hyper-competitive father who struggles to show affection while he pushes his son, Tyler, to be an all-star athlete. Harrison portrays Tyler, an ambitious yet cocky teenager who attempts to juggle the expectations of his friends and family until a shocking revelation from his girlfriend throws him into a frenzy.
Their relationship is most heavily influenced by their generational divide. Ronald pushes Tyler to succeed as a high school wrestler to make up for his personal, unspoken dream of being an invincible athlete. The Gen X father is only able to show his Gen Z son love by reminding him that he should be grateful to have a roof over his head.
Halfway through, the film switches its focus to Tyler’s sister, Emily. Russell brings life to Emily’s character in a way that would be difficult for even a highly acclaimed actress to achieve. Emily is the first and last character the audience sees. Her steady breathing can be heard as she enters and exits the film riding a bicycle. Although she is nearly invisible in the first half of the movie, she soon becomes the strongest member of the weakening family.
Russell acts the part of a shy yet courageous youth with tenderness and grit. The baggage carried on Emily’s fragile shoulders would be a difficult burden for anyone to bear, but Russell seems to do it with ease.
Along with the top-tier acting performances, the soundtrack elevates the film from great to brilliant. The music is special because it’s so familiar. Songs by Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper and Kid Cudi park the film in 2019. It’s easy to empathize with the character’s experiences when hearing these well-known songs. Music lovers can relate to feeling immortal and empowered listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” and sentimental when they hear Frank Ocean’s “Seigfried.”
On top of that, the film is visually stunning. The cinematography matches the emotional arc of the narrative. By using high contrast lighting in dramatic scenes and pastel hues during tender moments, the viewer is transported to Tyler and Emily’s world.
Waves is brilliantly written and masterfully executed. Like ocean waves crashing against a sandy shore, the energy of each scene builds with mounting intensity and leaves the audience deeply moved. After experiencing a tsunami of sentiments, it’s impossible not to exit the theater feeling emotionally raw.