In one of the most emotionally poignant scenes of WAVES, Tyler Williams, who is played by Kelvin Harrison Jr, returns to his suburban family’s home after a night of partying. Not only is his shoulder damaged by an injury that effectively ended his future as a football player, but he just had an explosive breakup with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), finds him in the bathroom vomiting and comforts him as he cries. Like many other moments in the new A24 film directed by Trey Shults, it is emotionally alarming and the pain is difficult to look away from.
WAVES follows the Williams family, a Black family living in a suburb of South Florida. One of the film’s central conflicts is how Ronald, played by Sterling K. Brown, pressures his son, Tyler, to be a star athlete and student. More than an exploration of respectability politics, the film unfolds the perils of toxic masculinity when Black men are pushed too far and the trauma that women deal with in the aftermath.
The more that Ronald pressures his son to be successful, the more Tyler cocoons inside of himself. By punching walls or drunkenly berating his mother, the audience soon realizes that Tyler’s only concept of expressing his thoughts is through violence; a theme that is visualized during the film’s first half with its saturation of red tones. Tyler’s consumption of drugs and alcohol becomes a coping mechanism for his frustrations.
“I experienced a similar dynamic with my father when it came to pursuing music,” Kelvin tells Teen Vogue about what inspiration he drew from for the characters in Waves and similarly in Julius Onah’s Luce. “There’s often a pressure placed on young Black boys to excel whether it be in the realm of music, sports, or any field deemed ‘respectable,’ I believe this is largely due to the fact that we exist in a country that historically has sought to destroy us before ever celebrating us.”
The 25-year-old continues, “So when it came to tackling both Tyler and Luce, I was never worried about perpetuating the cliches or the stereotypes because I knew that these young men existed in a realm beyond societal labels and assumption. These are complex, flawed, passionate young men and I took great joy in allowing them the permission to be just that.”
The film changes pace and tone in its latter half as it follows Emily, the daughter of the Williams’ family. It contrasts Emily’s near non-presence in the male-dominated first half of the film with the second half, which is fueled by Emily and her stepmother’s struggle to grapple with the consequences of the actions of the men in their family.
Before Emily falls in love, she isolates herself by staying at home, deletes her social media, and listens to her parents argue. As she falls in love with her classmate, Luke (Lucas Hedges), she is freed from the confines of her family home and makes new friends. In this new world that she has created, she is no longer is she defined by her place in the family or at school. She is defined by what her vulnerability can manifest in her life.
“It’s sort of about the highs and lows of life, love, and family. So letting the narrative be literally split between a brother and a sister was so exciting,” says WAVES director, Trey Edward Schultz. “It’s about how the two halves of this story make the whole. I think the sibling connection is special, singular, and undying. Even if you’re not together you are linked. It felt really exciting to explore this family in this way.”
Catherine, the Williams’ family stepmother, operates as the family’s emotional center and scapegoat. She reminds Tyler to eat breakfast in the morning, is the only one to listen to him about his day, and counteracts her husband’s domineering nature.
The film echoes other contemporary works, like Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehasi Coates, that reveal how control is used as a social mechanism among Black men. “My father was so very afraid,” Coates writes in his 2015 book. “I felt it in the sting of his black leather belt, which he applied with more anxiety than anger, my father who beat me as if someone might steal me away, because that is exactly what was happening all around us.”
Despite the father-son tension, Emily’s metamorphosis aids in showing the complexity of pain and fear for those who are already marginalized by greater society. In the end, WAVES paints an arresting portrait of how the internal and external world speak, manifest, and challenge our very existence.
This film was screened at 2019 New Orleans Film Festival
Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue