Waves (2019) follows the story of a suburban family navigating the ordinary struggles of life, until an unsurmountable tragedy unexpectedly hits them. The family is composed by the son Tyler (Kalvin Harrison Jr.), a talented athlete who seems to have it all; the daughter Emily (Taylor Russell), a sweet and somewhat reserved young woman; the stern father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown); and the mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry).
That between sibilings is a a unique, unweaving bond, which cannot be substituted by any other.
The main strength of this movie is the realistic portrayal of relationships, especially that between siblings. The two don’t have many interactions: in the first part of the movie, from Tyler’s point of view, Emily is but a shadow. Yet the one interaction they have is incredibly meaningful. With this choice, the writers nail what it’s like to have a sibling: they can often feel like a background presence, especially in the tumultuous life of a teenager. However, they are the ones who will be there during times of struggle: a unique, unweaving bond, which cannot be substituted by any other. This is even shown through the set design. For example, their rooms are connected by a shared bathroom and, although Tyler insists on keeping the doors that connects them closed, that connection never fades: this is reaffirmed in the moving scene they share, which takes place in that very bathroom.
A constant theme of pain is used to deliver a clear message: it demands to be felt, and we cannot experience it alone. From physical pain to grief, this movie is an incredible portrayal of how pain can equally drive people apart and bring them closer together: while the family struggles under the weight of the tragedy, true empathy can help form new relationships, and rekindle old ones. It also shows that, although an event can cause pain to a collective, like a family, that pain is experienced differently by everybody: while part of a whole, the effect it has on each one is unique. Moreover, the film warns against the danger of forcing togetherness: empathy is not to be forced, yet it is the thing that as humans we all crave. Therefore, we need to let it find us.
While the whole cast delivers authentic performances, it is Sterling K. Brown who stands out. It could have been easy for him to fall in the “abusive dad” trope. Yet even at his toughest, the audience will clearly see the love he proves for his son. In fact, although the movie condemns his demanding ways, the journey he undergoes is believable, because he was always shown as a loving parent. At the beginning of the movie, a priest speaks these famous words: “Love is patient, love is kind”. This encapsulates the meaning of the movie, and the arc so beautifully portrayed by Sterling K. Brown. He delivers one of the most layered performances of the year, and he was shamefully robbed of an Oscar nomination.
Lastly, the direction. Not only does this movie have an incredibly strong script, but the direction is equally powerful. Using different ratios, techniques and lighting, director Trey Edward Shults (It comes at night) is effective in delivering the change in perspective. Every choice is clearly thought out and made with a purpose: for example, the use of ratios is innovative and effective, without being distracting. The pace of the movie also mirrors the characters it’s following: dynamic and colourful in the first half, for Tyler; contained and soft in the second half, for Emily. It is incredibly refreshing to see a movie that, despite being beautiful to look at, does not sacrifice style for substance: instead, it complements it.