By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J.
Waves is a film that looks at teen love and lust with tragic circumstances. It could also be a giant-screen public service announcement for sex safe and a look at the opioid crisis.
Set against the vibrant landscape of South Florida, and featuring an astonishing ensemble of award-winning actors and breakouts alike, “Waves” traces the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family—led by a well-intentioned but domineering father—as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss. From acclaimed director Trey Edward Shults, “Waves” is a heartrending story about the universal capacity for compassion and growth even in the darkest of times.
Ronald, played by Sterling Brown, and his family live in sunny Florida. His son Tyler, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., is an aspiring wrestler, but he is pushed to the limit by his father. As a result, he continues to participate in matches even though he has been advised by his physician to have surgery and to come off the wrestling team during his last semester of high school. This participation compels him to take an addictive amount of painkillers.
The daughter’s name is Emily, and she’s played by Taylor Russell, with Renee Elise Goldsberry playing the step mother named Catharine.
And although “Waves” shows a Black family in a productive light, meaning there’s no gang banging or negative circumstances, the family does have issues. There is a bit of tension going on in the family, as Catharine constantly admonishes Ronald about being too hard on his son. Ronald is just going by the cards that he has been dealt—Blacks have to be “better than better.” Tyler is ambitious and works as a lifeguard, but most of the time he’s with his girlfriend Alexis.
But soon comes a social ill that many families with teens face—whether rich or poor or Black or white. After a few make out sessions, Alexis learns that she is pregnant. However, Tyler isn’t pleased with her decision to keep the baby. The pair breaks up, and Tyler tries to persuade her to give the baby up so he can continue on with his college plans. At a party, his future is sealed in an awful way when—in a drunken, drug-filled rage—his violent confrontation causes Alexis’ death, which results in a life sentence for Tyler.
The family is kind of estranged, living their individual lives after this point. Emily is ostracized at school and finds comfort in a new boyfriend named Luke. She sneaks off, when he offers her a better time than she has been having at home. She grows closer to Luke and his terminally ill father than she is with her own dad.
Tyler’s prison sentence has the entire family grieving, and Catharine blames his downfall entirely on Ronald’s machismo demeanor. Emily eventuality admits that she saw Tyler at the party going to confront Alexis and that she could have stopped him.
At this point there is a re-awakening, and the family seems to reach a more peaceful state. You see Emily going to visit Tyler, who up until now had been seemingly locked away in prison and forgotten. It’s a shame that Tyler didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell his aggressive father that he couldn’t wrestle much longer. If there had been more communication and empathy earlier, the family may not have had to face the life-altering circumstances that came its way.
“Waves” initially screened at the 55th Chicago International Film Festival under the Black Perspectives slate. It is playing at the Harper Theater, Studio Movie Grill and other local Chicago area theaters.