While Tyler acts as if achieving his potential is his right, his little sister Emily (Taylor Russell) keeps her own potential in reserve — at least for the first half of the film. And then there’s Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), the supportive stepmother who is trying to fully sew herself into the family fabric while also tending to subtle tension in her marriage.
These emotional dramas unfold within the material comforts of upper-middle-class suburban life. There are things left unsaid, fault lines ignored. When tragedy does strike, it’s brutal and swift after a steady accumulation of setbacks.
Ultimately, the film offers messages about love, resilience and embracing vulnerability. Butas I left the theater my mind still lingered onRonald’s eyes.
Early in the movie, he and Tyler are having a charged father-son conversation, the sort where the father monopolizes the talking. The camera hugs Ronald’s face as he says, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”
It’s one of the few scenes to directly allude to blackness, specifically blackness as a site of struggle.But race itself is incidental to the overt dramatic tensions of the plot. What stuck was Ronald’s eyes, how they carried an ominous, unfriendly warning — not out of spite, but concern.
My own father had those eyes, on multiple occasions. When I came home too late. When I didn’t study hard enough. When I didn’t seem to be considering my future seriously enough. As I grew older, and he demanded more, my father felt more like a nuisance than a guide. The stoic, standoffish expression Tyler uses to parry his father’s gaze became my go-to response.
It’s a common dynamic: The father is quick to remind the son of how good they have it. The son gets it, but also wants some distance from the father in order to claim a future of his own.
But Ronald’s eyes spoke to a specific generational struggle. They said, “Don’t forget that you’re black, now. Stay hungry. Stay focused. Because out there, they don’t see all that we have in here. They see you. And when it comes to us, they typically don’t like what they see.” Those eyes told the truth more clearly than any monologueon injustice could.
I don’t often recognize myself in characters on screen. Women and people of color remain underrepresented in every film, broadcast, cable and Internet entertainment front. More disappointingly, representation is frequently addressed with a “diversity by numbers” approach, where filmmakers include nonwhite, non-cisgendered people as secondary characters in films with white leads.
“Waves” is different. It artfully evokes the particular anxieties of black manhood — the police lights flashing across Ronald’s face as he careens down the highway; the pitch-perfect score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that accompanies Tyler’s internal struggle — but its emotional vocabulary is wide-ranging. It also explores black womanhood in a relatively sophisticated way; rather than confining Emily, Tyler’s sister, to a supporting role, “Waves” explores her romantic journey and lets her become the hero of the second half of the film.
“For black girls to come up to me and say, ‘I’ve never seen myself on screen in this way,’ it’s mind-blowing,” Taylor Russell told The Washington Post. “It’s about time. Time for a story about human beings that’s truthful and authentic.”
“I think there are as many ways to be black as there are black people in America,” Sterling K. Brown told The Post. “There are too many people I’ve met who don’t have those stereotypical experiences. And I think those stereotypical stories have been told so often because they are commercially viable.”
“Waves” allows a black family to occupy the normative position of “American family” in an American family drama without flattening them intoarchetypes or relying on racialized conflict to make them accessible and sympathetic.
This is an achievement that might owe to process as much as execution.Some of the film’s story elements were the product of conversations between Schults, who is white, and Harrison, who is black. Schults drew from his own reflections on life and music in Florida and highs and lows with a girlfriend. The wrestling injury Tyler sustains mirrors Schults’s own. Harrison said how his own father pushed his musical pursuits informed his performance.
“When the spirit of collaboration is present, there is nothing to fear,” Brown said. He compared his “Waves” experience to working with Dan Fogelman on “This Is Us.” Both Fogelman and Shults, he said, knew when to lead and when to step back when crafting stories incorporating social experiences other than their own. “[Schults] was so egoless. We were hired to bring our emotions, our thoughts and our opinions to make this real. And we had space for that.”
Russell, who plays Emily Williams, applauded Schults for being willing to “step outside of himself.”
Representation is not liberation. At best it’s a part of the freedom struggle, a new piece in a multigenerational puzzle that is far from complete. But it’s significance cannot be denied. I expected to see a more typical tale of black pain. Instead I saw something more, something with a vision of what else is possible, built collaboratively between the actors and the director.
To be seen and to see anew. How refreshing.