“Waves” is a teenage love story that takes a tragic detour


Directed by Trey Edward Shults, ‘Waves’ is chock-full of emotion

“Waves,” released in 2019, is a coming-of-age movie with sports, budding romance and all the other cliches of your favorite high school story.

It’s also a heavy, hard-hitting drama that uses tragedy to reveal the unstable foundation of a family that, while appearing to be thriving, was in fact struggling with loss. 

The first half has Kelvin Harrison Jr. starring as Tyler Williams, the smart, athletic oldest child of Ronald Williams whos played by Sterling K. Brown and stepson to Catherine Williams, played by Renée Elise Goldsberry.

The cast, at least for the first major portion of the movie, is rounded out by Alexa Demie, who plays Tyler’s love interest Alexis, and Taylor Russel, who plays his younger sister Emily. 

The first half of the story revolves around Tyler.

Our main character is a star high school wrestler and a more than capable student. This — combined with his popularity and loving relationship with Alexis — paints the picture of the life many kids in high school wish they were living.

Soon, however, cracks begin to form in this otherwise perfect image.

As patriarch of the Williams family, Ronald raised Tyler with a brand of tough love that seemed to be a strong contributor to his son’s early successes. 

This tough love, however, put an immense amount of pressure on Tyler to succeed in both academics and athletics.  

Rather than undergo surgery for a small shoulder injury which would take him out of the wrestling season, Tyler hides his injury and begins abusing prescription medication to handle the pain. 

Soon he injures his shoulder completely and the identity he and his father had meticulously built for himself as a tough, Division I bound athlete is shaken to its core.

Along with this, Tyler finds out Alexis is pregnant. As the two high school students attempt to navigate this mature, complex situation, a rift forms between them. 

As the tension increases, Emily quietly watches her older brother struggle to hold a man’s responsibilities on a boy’s shoulders. 

The emotional climax of the film happens about midway through when, in an effort to try and talk things over, an intoxicated Tyler ends up accidentally killing Alexis and their unborn child. 

The story then switches its point of view to Emily as she navigates the broken world her brother’s actions reveal. The path she takes leads her to forgiveness and a deeper understanding of herself and her family. 

There’s a lot to like about this movie. 

From a visual standpoint, it takes full advantage of its sundrenched, Florida setting to add color and dimension to its characters.

Colors that at first appear to reflect the vibrant life of a kid who has everything going for him become oversaturated as the pressure mounts and Tyler makes increasingly-less salvageable mistakes.

When not completely soaked in intense hues of red and blue, Tyler’s environment is often pretty dark. This lack of a middle ground reflects the tragic lack of balance in his young life.

In contrast, when we see Emily in her own scenes, she is usually surrounded by natural colors and often just in nature outright. 

Especially since we see her most in the aftermath of the traumatic tragedy brought upon by her brother, the calm innocence of her surroundings allows the audience a respite from the chaotic emotion lived through by Tyler.

Another aspect I love about this movie is the way it subverts common and quite overplayed stereotypes that often go along with the depiction of a Black family.

The Williams are your run-of-the-mill successful, upper middle-class suburban family, which on its own could challenge the perceptions of some. The most important part of this dynamic that is highlighted, however, is fatherhood. 

While Black fathers are often portrayed as side characters in the lives of their children, if present at all, Tyler’s father is always there.

His aggressive, authoritarian parenting style leaves a little to be desired and feels quite overzealous at times, but it’s soon revealed that his first wife, and the biological mother of his children, died when his kids were still young.

It becomes clear that his overbearing nature is an attempt to compensate for the loss he and his children have endured.  

It adds a heart-breaking wrinkle to an already sad story and provides clarity to the dynamic of what we realize is a blended family. 

The latter half of the movie follows Emily as she attempts to have a normal teenage life after her family is turned upside down and here we actually get some of the most touching parts of the movie. Through her, the audience sees the wounds in this family slowly begin to heal. 

 This coming-of-age tale starts off as an emotion-packed ride that puts a tragic spin on a high school love story before revealing it’s actually a tale about a family’s pain and learning to forgive. I strongly suggest you give it a watch. 


Obadiya can be reached at [email protected]