Caught in the undertow

One family navigating dramas big and small

Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Renée Elise Goldsberry. Directed by Trey Edward Shults. Pageant Theatre. Rated R.
Rated 4.0

Waves, the new film from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, is a contemporary family drama in a spectacular and somewhat unconventional form. It’s loaded with character and emotion, and the story it tells proceeds along narrative lines that are sometimes more circular and/or oblique than conventionally straight.

The family in question is black, middle class, living in a Florida suburb. Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) and Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry) set high standards for their high-school-age children, Tyler (Kevin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell).

Ronald is an especially tough taskmaster for Tyler, whom he’s grooming for success in athletics (wrestling, in his case) and academics alike. The first half of the film focuses on Tyler’s personal dramas, including his bristling romance with a Latina named Alexis (Alexa Demie).

Those dramas take a devastating turn that might have served as the climax and finish of a more conventional movie, but Waves keeps moving on with the family’s evolving dramas. And in its second half, the film turns its attention to Tyler’s sister, Emily, who has been somewhat overlooked both at school and at home, but steps into the foreground in the wake of her family’s increasingly disorienting crises.

Tentatively at first, Emily edges into a romance with Luke (Lucas Hedges), a charmingly awkward classmate who is white. The film’s mostly unspoken concern with racism takes its most intriguing form via their relationship, but the most dramatic turn in their romance comes by way of Luke’s reconciliation with his grimly wayward father.

Along the way, Waves touches on a large array of potentially melodramatic issues—drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy, deadbeat dads, overbearing parents, consumer culture excess, etc. But Shults seems less concerned with pointing fingers and passing judgment than with letting us see the humanity of his characters even as he criticizes them.

All told, Waves comes on at first with the visual flare and aggressive sounds of a very stylish music video, but soon settles into more delicate and nuanced emotional territories. And the most deeply felt of its many concerns is a matter of recognizing the fraught but crucial relationship between compassion and self respect.