Waves is one aptly titled film. It brings on a flood of emotions that break relentlessly on the shores of one’s heart as it follows an African-American family in South Florida whose members struggle to support one another through life-altering hardships. Audiences should take heed and bring tissues to any screening in case their eyes experience a bit of moisture while viewing. Trey Edward Shults wrote, directed, produced and edited the deeply affecting drama that he says was inspired by his own upbringing and includes some autobiographical elements. He stated in a Los Angeles Times interview that he collaborated with lead actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. to develop his character of Tyler and to capture the “nuance of a black family.”
Tyler dominates the first half of the film and causes the tragedy at its midpoint. It’s a big responsibility to shoulder, and Harrison Jr. rises to the occasion. Avy Kaufman did well with the casting choice as the actor believably fits the bill of a high school senior who’s also a gifted athlete. The actor embodies the fervor of youth, infusing his character with a passion for life as well as a devotion to his girlfriend. The actor is only 25, but his remarkable abilities are far beyond his years. Harrison Jr. is fully alive in every scene, dialed-in and present. He brings to the character a certain volatility, and as Tyler travels further down his path of self-destruction, viewers will find themselves holding their breath every time he appears on-screen, unsure of what he’ll do next.
A shoulder injury that ends his wrestling season prematurely triggers Tyler’s downturn. It’s a heavy blow for a young man whose identity is rooted in his atheleticism and in pleasing his overbearing father Ronald (played by Sterling K. Brown). As Tyler’s world starts to crumble and he turns to drugs and alcohol, Harrison Jr. slowly unveils the depth and intensity of his character’s pain. But even as his character makes one poor choice after another, viewers can empathize with him, a reflection of Harrison Jr.’s astute character work. Because he understands the heart of his flawed, broken character and is able to translate it on-screen, viewers may likely see pieces of themselves in Tyler. This ability to transcend the medium and provide a window into universal elements of the human condition is what art is all about, and it’s proof that Harrison Jr. is a young actor with great things ahead of him.
Once the midpoint of Waves hits with a shocking turn, Tyler exits the story, and his sister Emily takes over as the film’s focus. Russell subtly and beautifully portrays the younger sibling who’s left reeling in the aftermath of her brother’s actions. She imbues into Emily a quiet strength that emerges as she deals with hateful posts on social media and with feeling ostracized in her high school. The actor’s nuanced on-camera presence is a breath of fresh air, especially when it comes to the type of role she tackles. Many actors falter with characters who seemingly possess low self-confidence; their portrayals don’t always ring true. But Russell introduces us to Emily by believably depicting a second child who’s been overlooked by at least one parent. She’s happy to stand in the shadow of her brother’s larger-than-life presence.
Russell’s a team player who generously assists Harrison Jr.’s character during his half of the film. But once it’s her turn to be the “star player,” the actor shines. Russell smoothly externalizes Emily’s growing confidence, which is encouraged by her newfound love. By the end of the film, Emily is making bold choices that include lying to her parents and taking a cross-country trip to help her boyfriend. Viewers may have doubted that Emily was capable of such actions at the beginning of Waves, but Russell’s patient development of her character makes Emily’s transformation from chrysalis to butterfly feel authentic. Her character is the heartbeat of the film’s second half, and it’s thanks to Russell’s performance that viewers are left with the hope of a new horizon amidst the sea of turbulent emotions in which they find themselves.
Harrison Jr. and Russell are supported by a strong cast that includes Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Alexa Demie and Renée Elise Goldsberry. Frank Ocean may even be considered a co-star as his music is featured prominently in the film’s soundtrack. You can experience the work of this talented cast, set against the backdrop of Ocean’s tracks, when Waves hits theaters November 15.