by Hope Madden
“Seize the day,” Tyler’s (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) literature teacher reminds each student as they leave her classroom.
In a constant loop during weight training, Tyler’s wrestling coach barks,
“There are no second chances and there is no fucking second place!”
Even at home, Tyler’s relaxing moment alone with his loving stepmother Catharine (Renee Elise Golsberry) is interrupted by a very stern father (Sterling K. Brown, remarkable as always) reminding him that if he expects to achieve all that has been set out for him – wrestling at state championship level, securing a scholarship – he’d better get back to work.
Trey Edward Schults’s Waves is quick to show us that Tyler has it all: a loving and financially comfortable family, grades, talent, friends, and a gorgeous girlfriend (Alexa Demie). If there is time to enjoy it, there’s certainly no time to live it, to give into it, or to give anything without the clear expectation that it is forwarding something for himself. High expectations, high demands, high rewards, everything focused on Tyler, everyone focused on Tyler, Tyler focused on Tyler.
Waves sometimes feels like a less contrived, more Floridian view of Julius Onah’s Luce, the scab-picking indie in which Harrison proved himself a blistering and commanding lead. Are the demands put upon the brightest and most talented African American high school males too high? Are those supporting these young men deriving too much from their success to actually offer clear-eyed guidance?
Says Dad to an increasingly desperate Tyler, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”
While much of the drama leading to this moment could be generalized to most any adolescent male buckling under high expectations, this moment between father and son separates the narrative as one dealing specifically with the black American experience.
In 1968, George Romero famously cast Duane Jones as the lead in his groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead only, according to the filmmaker, because Jones was the best actor to audition for the part. The film’s enduring success has less to do with Jones’s talent (though that is evident in every frame) and more to do with the political power the film derives from seeing a black hero in this particular effort.
Schultz cast Harrison Jr. as the male lead in Waves because of his work with the remarkable talent in his previous effort, It Comes at Night. The white filmmaker’s script itself is semi-autobiographical, and there’s a superficial tidiness to Schultz’s cultural shift that Romero’s film didn’t suffer.
It’s not enough to topple the film by any means, but the shorthand and stylized moments that remark on the cultural shift from the story of a white adolescent male on a collision course with destiny and the story of a black young man on that same course feel specifically introduced and placed, while much of the rest of the film offers an uneasy authenticity that keeps your attention.
From Schults’s dizzying opening sequence, Tyler’s breathless youth in sunny south Florida is simultaneously exhilarating and reckless, a reality underscored throughout the film by Drew Daniels’s whirligig camera and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s furious score.
What separates Waves from other chronicles of the frenzied fall of an idealized adolescent is his follow-up act, one in which the fallout of Tyler’s destruction implicates everyone who loves him, including his quiet sister Emily (Taylor Russell).
The point of her narrative is the redemptive nature of forgiveness. Here Schults uses the same camera movement and score to note again the hand-in-hand nature of freedom and danger in adolescence. But here, we sense things may not end up as dire.
Like Schults’s first film Krisha, Waves is embroiled in family issues as well as addiction, though this time the issues and the sociological context concern American blackness—questionable territory for a white filmmaker, even one as irrefutably talented as Schults. Perhaps thanks mainly to remarkable performances by Brown, Russell and especially Harrison, Waves rings mainly true.