(Release Info London schedule; January 17th, 2020, BFI Southbank, Belvedere Rd, Lambeth, London SE1 8XT, United Kingdom, 2:30 pm)
Set against the vibrant landscape of 'South Florida', "Waves" traces the epic emotional journey of a suburban 'African-American' family; led by a well-intentioned but domineering father, as they navigate love, forgiveness, and coming together in the aftermath of a loss. "Waves" is a heartrending story about the universal capacity for compassion and growth even in the darkest of times.
"Waves" places the family dynamic front and center. At the heart of the movie is the Williams family, determined, upper-middle class 'South Florida' achievers, who've to struggle ten times as hard as everyone else to get ahead. 'The Williams' have worked hard to attain an upper-middle class life; they've a great house, great careers, and they’ve raised their kids right. Their kids, like them, have a great work ethic. But like most American families, there are secrets and struggles behind the façade. Ronald Williams (Sterling K. Brown) is the stern and uncompromising patriarch. That’s Ronald’s initial approach with his son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), thinking he can’t have him going out in the world looking like a fool. Ronald has the best of intentions for his son, but comes to discover, that it’s better to parent out of love than fear. He discovers that better parenting comes from vulnerability and communication, not tough love. It's about how behaviors and traits can be passed down from father to son. In the first section of the movie, Ronald pushes Tyler excessively, going overboard without realizing it; in the second section, he finds peace and connection with Emily, locating a vulnerability he couldn’t share with his son. Losing Tyler, deserted by Catherine (Renée Elise Goldberry), and saved only by Emily, Ronald is forced to rethink his entire way of being. He abandons the severity of his parenting, which he thought was in Tyler’s best interest, and instead follows Emily’s example by choosing love, transparency, and honesty. You get a chance over the course of this movie to see a parent evolve, and recognize it’s a game of give and take, you've to be able to trust your children to a certain extent, because if you suffocate them, they will rebel or escape. Only after Ronald sees the results of this is he able to find a new way to be with his daughter. If he's able to share that level of honesty and vulnerability with Tyler, he might have shown to him that true strength lies not in perfection, or having it all together, but in being able to lean on the people who care about you when times get tough; to be able to communicate and ask for help.
Tyler Williams is a 17-year-old teenager who experiences an unfathomable tragedy. Then it became the story of his younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who's navigating her first true love. Tonally shifting from Tyler’s downward spiral into Emily’s romantic blossoming and renewal, the two mirrored sections are deepened by the presence of the sibling's hard-working, exacting parents. Tyler is in love with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), but grapples with tension at home with his father, who pushes him to work hard in all areas, school, sports, and part-time job, at the crucial moment he's trying to forge his own nascent identity. And, like so many teenage boys, Tyler doesn’t know where to turn to express his fears, weaknesses, and vulnerability. Tyler looks up to his dad so much, he’s probably the most hardworking man he’s ever known. When you idolize someone so much, it’s hard to feel, when you look at yourself, that you’ll ever measure up to that image. It’s a major part of Tyler’s struggle. Ronald pushes Tyler to excel in wrestling, pressing him to lift weights for long hours in the family’s sprawling suburban home. It's a paradox in a complicated relationship, at times a beautiful showcase of father and son bonding, at others a brutal battle of wills, as Ronald becomes blinded by his own demons intermingling with parental love. Ronald loves Tyler too hard, he cares about him too much. He loves him so intensely that Tyler, injured and suffering internally, eventually goes overboard, which amplifies the tragedy that ends the first section of the movie.
Adding to the pressure is Tyler’s disintegrating relationship with Alexis after they come to a disagreement about their own future. This, combined with his father’s rigorous demands, pushes him towards self-destruction, foregrounding one of the film’s most moving and indelible themes, how the simmering chaos inside families and relationships both shapes and destroys each of the members involved. What happens with Tyler unravels all of that hope and hard work. Yet Emily’s segment of the story serves as a contrast to what comes before, offering hope for the Williams when it seems there's none. "Waves" is a movie about family and forgiveness. It’s about moving forward. Through Tyler and Emily’s different trajectories, the film crafts a fresh, highly relatable and emotionally accessible cinematic experience, showing how one teenager succumbs to the near-impossible pressures and demands placed on him, while another finds a way to navigate her hardships and break out in a new direction, filled with joy, affection and positivity. It’s so much about this void Tyler is trying to heal, since his mother abandoned him and his sister as young children, leaving them with a stepmother who also couldn’t fill that void. When Tyler’s injury happens, he, like many other teenagers, doesn’t feel comfortable admitting it, including even to those closest to him. He can’t face showing that kind of vulnerability or weakness, which ties directly back to how his father has raised him. Tyler has been molded in his father’s image. His identity relies on being a step above everyone else and being in control. That’s why he can’t tell his dad, mom, or girlfriend about his shoulder and why he responds to things the way he does. If any one of the events in the story didn’t happen in such short time period, Tyler would’ve been fine and worked through everything. Instead, the world fires back against him and he doesn’t know how to ask for help because he raised to be stronger than everyone else.
The character encapsulates teenage frustrations in this precise moment, and the film infuses the young man with empathy and soul even in his darkest hour, shaping the conflicted and confused teen into a sympathetic, often relatable human being. Tyler becomes an emblem for the pressures of the modern age, showing how young people in this era try and sometimes fail to navigate a fraught and perilous world. He's not a monster. People can make mistakes and people should still be seen as human beings. We've to learn to be empathetic and not judge people so quickly. "Waves" examines the pressures of modern American teenage life in the current moment, focusing on Tyler as he grapples with ambition, drive, parental pressure, and finding his own path. In one memorable scene he dyes his hair white in the style of Frank Ocean, his own unique way of distancing himself from his father’s rigidity; in another he shares a flurry of angry text messages with his girlfriend about the direction of their future together. As the Williamses endure an almost impossible devastation at the film’s midpoint, "Waves" shifts tone in the evocative and touching second portion, sending the movie in another direction as it focuses on Emily, Tyler’s quiet younger sister who appears only fleetingly in the story’s earlier part.
Emily is in a huge transitional period in her life, trying to find out who she's and where she fits within her family, feeling invisible in her brother’s shadow. A lot of the focus in "Waves" is on Tyler under immense pressure, but over the course of the movie Emily has the opportunity to discover herself, and make her own decisions in life, and that’s a liberating place to be as a teenager. Emerging from a tunnel of upheaval and grief, Emily finds her way into the light. After an unexpected run-in with classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges), one of Tyler’s wrestling teammates, Emily falls fast and hard for the amiable senior, mirroring the intoxicating highs of Tyler and Alexis feverish romance in Waves’ opening scenes, but with an innocence and grace that separates the tone of the two relationships. It’s very powerful to watch Emily blossom, she’s open to love, and mending relationships. Working through a tragedy like that, within her family but also inside her community, could easily tear her apart. But she chooses to not let what happened to Tyler destroy her. As the second portion of the movie begins, Emily is isolated, still unable to emerge from Tyler’s shadow and the reverberations of his actions; her family is branded in a way, causing fear to set in. And that fear comes to influence how she approaches her life. She’s on the precipice of becoming a bunch of different people. It’s a crucial time period for her, and she chooses love.
From it's inception, "Waves" is a music-driven movie in the vein of "Boogie Nights" or "Goodfellas", with songs and score serving as a kind of fluctuating tide for the sprawling narrative. Indeed, "Waves" is largely synchronized to music mixing contemporary songs from the likes of "Animal Collective". The music and corresponding images feel like the music in Tyler’s and Emily’s worlds, and show how the world is functioning around them. Like the songs in the film, the score expresses the subconscious of Tyler and Emily Williams as they grapple with their disparate paths and choices in life. The first time the score surfaces in Tyler’s section of the movie comes after he receives the news from his doctor that his torn labrum ends his athletic career, marking the beginning of his downward spiral. From the outset of Waves you get the feeling Tyler can go anywhere in life, he’s in the 1:85 aspect ratio, on top of the world, open and free and in love. “But as things start closing down, the aspect ratio narrows. Keeping with the ebb and flow motif, as Tyler’s state of mind changes, so does the camera and aspect ratio. Emily’s story, by contrast, begins in the 1:33 ratio, engulfed in grief following the heartbreaking events of the film’s midsection. But it opens up again as she comes back to life and her romance with Luke takes hold.
Luke (Lukas Hedges) is Emily’s love interest. Near the end of the film Luke and Emily share one of the film’s most emotionally wrenching scenes, and over the course of their road trip, Emily’s character emerges to help Luke find his own peace and acceptance, while she's able to reconcile and recalibrate her relationship with her parents as she discovers her own power through love. Adding nuance and complexity to the mix is the fact that Catherine is the sibling's stepparent, their birth mother having left when they're young children. Catherine doesn’t see herself as a stepmother, her bond with Tyler and Emily was so quick and complete that she feels they're her own children, and the complexity of her relationship with them is typical of any good mother. She's the nurturer in the family, and loves being a soft place for her kids to land. She believes Ronald puts too much pressure on Tyler, and pays Emily too little attention, so she's too hard on Emily and too soft with Tyler, unwittingly over-correcting the disparity. Through all of this, she has to find a way to hold on to her love for Ronald. "Waves" is as much about parenting as it's young people trying to survive and flourish in a challenging world. There’s a fear in Catherine, having lost her husband, of losing anybody else, and certainly losing either of her children to a world that can be cruel sometimes. A lot of the way in which she parents her children, especially his boy, comes out of that fear, making sure she holds on very tight so that he doesn’t lose again. You can feel hope at the end of "Waves", like these people can pull through their struggles. That’s the ebb and flow at work at the heart of this story. You know they’re going to pull through and survive, even when it feels like they might drown.
"Waves" is a uniquely bifurcated movie, split into two distinct segments and conjoined by a virtuoso middle passage. The film focuses on the brother in the first part and the sister in the second, two couples on each side, with the parents linking things throughout. There’s a frenetic energy in the first part of the movie versus the more languid and reflective second portion, which illuminates the siblings and what they’re going through in terms of their respective relationships and their quest for identity. As explosive as the first section is on the page, the second part is beautiful and satisfying in a completely different way. At times it still feels claustrophobic and suffocating, but at other times it feels open and free as the character’s journeys progress. It's refreshing this time around to focus on the full world of the characters, their relationships and dynamics. It's a searing story of one family pushed to the brink of destruction, and how they find rebirth and renewal through love, connection, communication, and atonement. It's a uniquely structured story of American life right now, tracing the different trajectories and coping strategies of two South Florida siblings searching for meaning and identity in the wake of trauma. A deeply personal statement on love and loss, propelled by an exhilarating soundtrack, including songs by Frank Ocean and 'Radiohead'. The film compromises visuals and musical collaborations, revealing how deeply love and loss can reverberate through our lives and families.
Centered on an 'African-American' family living in 'South Florida', "Waves" is also an examination of parental pressure and the limitations of love, how finding communication between parent and child, and allowing vulnerability to be expressed on both sides, is essential to the limit of both. The film feels at times that it could go anywhere, and often does, in keeping with the restless spirit of modern youth the film both addresses and captures. This is a movie that deals in raw emotions, rage, anger, frustration, joy, freedom, and liberation. It’s easy to call it a movie about American teenagers in search of themselves, but this is a more primal experience. The movements behind the film feel much more elemental than identity driven. When you see this, you’re experiencing something raw and real. "Waves" examines love in it's myriad incarnations, tracing how, at different times, it can both push people apart and draw them together. This is a movie about the highs and lows of love, romantic love, familial love, what it means to have a passion for something, and what happens when everything falls apart. The film paints the dark side of love and emotions. The film also shows how redemption and renewal can be found within the embers of the destruction, breaking the cycle of trauma and anger that often passes from generation to generation. “Waves" exudes an ebb and flow resembling how we think life truly feels at times.