“Waves,” a partially autobiographical film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, is a visually arresting look at the fraying of an upper-middle class black family in South Florida in the aftermath of a violent tragedy. It examines themes of grief, domestic violence, substance abuse and modern-day pressures on kids to succeed.
“Propelled by color, energy, electronic music,” as Variety critic Peter Debruge wrote, “Waves,” which opens Friday, is one of a handful that have the courage to grapple with the full weight of grief, the way it can level the afflicted and snuff out promising futures. It is very much in keeping with the likes of “Manchester By the Sea,” “Mystic River” and “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” but with a key distinction.
“I’ve never seen a middle to upper middle class black family dealing with the problems that [the family] has in this movie,” says Sterling K. Brown, who plays Ronald, the family’s overbearing patriarch. “They are financially well off and not over-abundantly rich so it’s not like you’re watching Lucious and Cookie [of ‘Empire’]. It’s not like the ‘Good Times’ family either where they’re just trying to keep their head above water. You have this upper middle class family that is African American and so they’re in a place where they can provide for their children.”
Shults tapped into the real-life experiences of his cast when it came to shaping the script. He reached out to actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who plays son Tyler) via text message and phone calls to grill him about his experiences growing up in New Orleans and blended those memories with his own. In the film, Tyler is a high-school wrestler whose ambitions to be a champion are derailed by injury, prompting him to begin abusing his pain medications. Schults was a high-school wrestler himself. Ronald was based on Schults’ father and stepfather. The filmmaker also incorporated Harrison Jr.’s stories about growing up as the son of two accomplished musicians who pushed him hard to play music. The two brainstormed how they wanted the tough-as-nails father to appear.
“Basically it started from a very personal, autobiographical place,” Shults said. “I feel like the narrative kind of functions in autobiography that goes to fictional narrative that comes back to autobiography then fictional narrative and it kind of keeps functioning like that.”
The film unfolds in two parts, the first featuring Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Tyler) and Alexa Demie’s (Alexis) codependent and at times violent relationship, the second following Taylor Russell (Emily) and Lucas Hedges’ (Luke) budding romance. In order to prepare for their half of the movie, Demie and Harrison Jr. met before filming to eat Indian food and watch YouTube videos about unhealthy romances.
“I think when we were going through our half of the script we just instinctively both thought of a codependent relationship where it’s very romantic but very destructive at the same time,” Demie said. “When it’s destructive, you would think that you would be like ‘Okay, let’s get out of this.'”
Shults, who directed the multiple award-winning indie “Krisha” and horror movie “It Comes At Night, ” which also starred Harrison Jr., helped prep the cast by sending them the script digitally, complete with music cues and colorful fonts to describe how he wanted the film to look on screen.
“This [script] was so much fun because I was reading this musical play and the way the script was formatted, it was like big fonts and red letters, blue letters and small letters and things like the types of fonts would change and you could feel the movie when you were reading it,” Harrison Jr. said. “And [I thought] ‘Oh my god, this sh-t is crazy.’ I can see the movie and it was so immersive and I felt like I just knew what movie I was making, so tonally for the actor it just helped so much when you’re walking on set.”
In the second half of the movie, Shults deals with grief as almost a character of its own. At one point, Emily and Luke travel to see the latter’s estranged father in the hospital, seemingly for the last time. The anguish that Luke experiences is much like that of Shults’ own experiences with his father, and Russell said that the hospital scenes were some of the hardest to film.
“Trey [Edward Schults] was in the bathroom, you could audibly hear him cry and we all after that take sat on the bed and cried together and held each other and I’ve never had an experience on set like that let alone even in life,” Russell said. “It didn’t feel like we were just doing this for a movie, it felt like this is a healing process.”
As for Brown’s character, Ronald, viewers see a father who evolves his parenting style from harsh and emotionally unavailable to vulnerable from the first half to the second. In the first half, he is tunnel-visioned when it comes to Tyler’s wrestling career. He pushes his son to physical limits without acknowledging that Tyler’s shoulder injury could impact his athletic future and emotional well-being. In the second half, viewers see Ronald as he deals with the fall-out from some of those decisions, while trying to reconnect with his daughter, Emily.
“I think it’s when you talk about strength stereotypically like sort of a tall, dark, silent, brooding type being male strength, I feel like that is one particular type, but not the only type,” said Brown. “There is as much if not more strength in vulnerability. It’s good to see [on screen]. It does my heart good because there are men and women that buy into antiquated ideas of masculinity that kind of need to be reworked.”
“Waves” is about emotional distress and the way that tragedies can either break people or enable them to move forward, shaped by those experiences, but not defined by them. The characters all suffer and are flawed in their own ways, but are brought together by a shared humanity.
“I just don’t think that we can be saints or just sinners. It’s not just black and white,” said Harrison Jr. “Ultimately when you’re trying to make it that, you’re dehumanizing us and I think part of the human experience is making mistakes and being flawed and being problematic and not knowing and walking in the dark. What the movie does so brilliantly is, you see people figuring it out because I think a lot of times we don’t know how to navigate that, we don’t know the answers.”