Waves: A ‘Frank Ocean’ style melodrama

Featuring a breadth of successful T.V. actors including Sterling K. Brown and Alexa Demie, "Waves" explores family tragedy in a stylish yet insightful way.

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Waves: A ‘Frank Ocean’ style melodrama

"Waves" is set to premiere Nov. 15 (Photo courtesy A24)

"Waves" is set to premiere Nov. 15 (Photo courtesy A24)

"Waves" is set to premiere Nov. 15 (Photo courtesy A24)

Eva Pace, Life Editor

“Waves,” which is set to officially release in Nashville Nov. 27, is a masterfully curated movie developed by director Trey Edward Shults that surrounds the growth of a family having faced loss, addiction and generational trauma extending beyond the scope of a traditional coming-of-age film. Vanderbilt students, including myself, had the unique opportunity to see an advance screening of the film at Sarratt Cinema Nov. 9, sponsored by A24.

I’d like to preface this review by saying that I am definitely not a film buff– my film vocabulary only branches out as far as random crime documentaries on Netflix, so a profound International Lens screening was wildly out of my comfort zone. With that being said, the undeniable impact of this film on both myself and everyone in the audience at Sarratt made it impossible for me not to want to write a review, which speaks volumes about the quality of the film.

The movie is split between the perspectives of lead actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell who play Tyler and Emily Williams, a highly intertwined brother-sister duo. The first half of the movie surrounds Tyler’s charismatic 18-year-old who has a life that most high schoolers wish for– a gorgeous girlfriend named Alexis (played by Alexa Demie from HBO’s “Euphoria”), a well-intentioned yet domineering father, a supportive family and a successful wrestling career. This all comes to a fairly stark climax when an injury threatens to put him permanently on the bench. 

I know, that’s a super cliche storyline. I’d say the teen-boy equivalent of a girly chick-flick is a movie about an athlete who gets hurt, so I, too, questioned the director’s choice of having this be the major stepping stone in the protagonist’s development. With that being said, Shults expertly delivers this progression. The gradual spiral that Tyler experiences feels incredibly realistic despite its severity, and the far-reaching impacts of his actions to his family and those he loves are skillfully illustrated to the audience. 

Tyler’s relationship with his sister is very much ignored throughout his half of the movie. They rarely interact and he does not hold the stereotypical ‘protective big brother’ role that many protagonists do. On the other hand, I’d argue that the little sister serves as the main cushion of her brother’s emotional distress. The movie plays several zoomed-in clips of Emily’s hand when she hugs her brother, or anyone else in the family for that matter, developing a motif that extends out into her half of the movie. 

When Emily finally gets her time to shine, she provides refreshing insight into what family trauma looks like from the perspective of those not directly involved. She masterfully demonstrates what it looks like to push down guilt and other hard-pressing emotions while absorbing the grievances of others, providing a layer of relatability to a movie that can feel dramatic at times. 

Through her relationship with her boyfriend Luke, played by Lucas Hedges, Emily provides a character foil to the experiences that her brother had with Alexis. The movie does an incredible job of flipping the black family archetype on its head– allowing for the family’s expressed vulnerability and emotional development which is rarely depicted on directed film. With that being said, this relationship parallel did leave me questioning how domestic violence was explored in the two relationships: one involving Emily’s brother, a black male, and another more dream-like scenario illustrated in her relationship with Luke, who is white. I am still grappling with whether or not the racial juxtaposition was necessary in order to achieve the impact of that parallel, but I suppose it’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself once you’ve watched “Waves.”

To add even more depth to the film, it was directed in such a way that it literally felt like a moving masterpiece. The gorgeous Miami road trip scenes were accentuated by amazing surround shots from the inside perspective of the car looking out onto the road and its scenery. The music was amazingly curated and expertly utilized to move through the heavy emotions of the movie, shifting not only at the character flip after the first half but also as a driving force in the ocean and water scenes. 

Everybody in Sarratt Cinema left the theatre emotionally drained in the best possible way. “Waves” was that kind of movie where you walk out and feel like you stepped out of a dream because you were just that invested in the storyline. The movie brings into question the characterization of African-American families, themes of domestic violence, drug addiction, alcohol and ultimately transforms how you view the layers of trauma both in the film and in the people you love in real life. 

Honestly, I didn’t want to give away too much, but the film covers way more than what I mentioned here. If nothing else, the film stars Sterling K. Brown as the father figure (a.k.a Randall from This Is Us), so that basically guarantees it’ll be a hit. To truly understand the depth of what this South Florida family experiences, go see “Waves” when it debuts at the Belcourt.

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