Waves makes a strong case for free‑range children

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

RPL Film Theatre
Friday 7

Waves is a dense exploration of the limits of fatherhood and the value of adversity in shaping young minds. Race is a factor, but only one of many shaping the fate of the two teens at its centre.

The top half of Waves zeroes on Tyler (Luce’s Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the eldest son of an affluent Florida family. The senior is high school royalty, has a cute girlfriend and a shot at a wrestling scholarship. In a matter of days Tyler’s future comes crashing down: He’s told he’s one wrong maneuver away from a career-ending injury. Then his sweetheart informs him she’s pregnant and is considering keeping the baby.

These issues have been dealt with thousands of times. The difference here is Tyler’s reaction to mounting hardship. As someone who has never sailed in stormy waters, the kid fails to rise to the occasion. Instead, he leans on painkillers and alcohol. His father (Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us), taught him the value of discipline and ambition, but he can’t talk to him about these challenges, so Tyler feels forced to push forward. No good outcome can come from that.

Midway through, the film shifts gears to focus on Tyler’s younger sister, Emily (Taylor Russell, Lost in Space). Growing in the shadow of her older sibling, Emily escapes her dad and brother’s toxic relationship but still must deal with the fallout. Her way to cope is to retreat from the world, but the emergence of a shy, well-meaning teen (Lucas Hedges, who’s a bit old for the part) stops her from going fully dark.

While not as intense, Emily’s journey is as compelling as Tyler’s. I would argue the fall of one allows the other to rise up. Writer/director Trey Edward Shults (responsible for the polarizing It Comes at Night) paints a vivid picture of the growing pains. He doesn’t wrap-up Tyler’s story satisfactorily, but the character’s downward spiral is inspired.

Waves is enriched by gorgeous cinematography that leans on saturated colours, Florida’s natural beauty and a restless camera. The Garden of Eden look makes exile all the more painful. Waves doesn’t stick its landing but its tapestry of emotions is so rich you can forgive it.