'Waves' Finds Universal Truths in the Specific Details of Family Tragedy

"When raising a Black son, you're fearful that any one moment, any wrong turn, any wrong-place-wrong-time situation, his life could be taken away from him just like that," says actor Kelvin Harrison Jr.
'Waves' Finds Universal Truths in the Specific Details of Family Tragedy
Director Trey Edward Shults (left) on the set of 'Waves' with actor Sterling K. Brown
Speaking with writer-director Trey Edward Shults and actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. about their new movie Waves, the matter of authenticity keeps coming up. They speak about it with respect to the semi-autobiographical depictions of teenage trauma, the masculine displays of bravado, the use of social media and the portrayal of racial tensions in America.
 
"We were doing 'mini-therapy sessions,' we called them," Shults says, nodding across the table at Harrison. "For myself, there's a lot of autobiography and fictional narrative. It all loops together into this very big, personal thing."
 
Waves is about the ebb and flow of a family struck by tragedy: in its first half, pressures mount as high-school overachiever Tyler (Harrison) attempts to hold together the crumbling facade of his seemingly idyllic life. A shoulder injury threatens his spot on the wrestling team, his relationship with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) deteriorates, and he's constantly pushed by his demanding father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). The film crescendos when Tyler's mistakes finally come to a head — but that's really only the halfway point, as the teenager's family then reels in the wake of his actions.
 
"The movie is about the dichotomies in our lives," explains Shults. "The good and bad, the highs and lows, everything in between. It felt right to have a narrative that works in a dichotomy. Understanding how this tragedy transpires, but then after literally the worst possible thing that can happen, asking: can we find any healing in this? Can we find growth? Can we go somewhere else? It spiritually felt true to life. Life's unpredictable." The rising and falling narrative is reflected by the title Waves.
 
Although the screenplay is credited to Shults, the director emphasizes the importance of collaboration. He sent early drafts of the script to Harrison, who would share his own personal reflections, helping to imbue the story with his own experiences. The director and actor bonded over commonalities — most notably, the way they faced pressure from their fathers — while also highlighting the specific details of their own lives.
 
"It was about trying to understand my dad better," offers Harrison. "What does it mean for a Black father to raise a Black son in 2019, and why is he pushing him? I was really trying to find the motivation behind everything. One of the many things we explored was this aspect of fear. When raising a Black son, you're fearful that any one moment, any wrong turn, any wrong-place-wrong-time situation, his life could be taken away from him just like that [snaps fingers]. I saw those things in my own father and how he was raised and his lack of communication. He put so much pressure on me because, at the end of the day, he loved me so much and he wanted to protect me. But what if your protection is not what I need? What if your protection is too much? What if you're part of what I need protecting from?"
 
Harrison is speaking quickly and passionately, and he cuts himself off with a laugh: "That was my contribution to Ronald and Tyler — really understanding what is the Black experience, and how does play into this universal truth that Trey has already set out here."
 
But for all its hard-hitting truths, Waves isn't exactly naturalistic. It's a highly stylized film, full of glitzy camera work and attention-grabbing soundtrack placements. Some passages play out like music videos; others feature dizzying camera spins that convey both the glamour and the franticness of Tyler's life. There are changes in aspect ratio, and gorgeous glimpses of Florida wildlife. The timeframe is unpredictable, with some scenes playing out in intimate detail before the narrative suddenly jumps forward.
 
There are plenty of things audiences can take away from Waves; it's got eye candy, hot-button themes, and harrowing family drama that's frequently stressful to watch. But for Shults, it ultimately all boils down to one thing: real people.
 
"I like to approach it with honesty first," he says in regards to the films message. "Drawing on real stuff, and drawing on real people and lives and trying to examine those relationships, and letting theme come out of it."