Waves Film Review: A Tragic Tale of an American Family

Enjoying its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Waves is a tragic tale of an African American family living in Florida.

Waves was one of the most buzzed-about films at TIFF 2019, so popular with critics that the festival added an additional Press & Industry screening.

Waves writer and director Trey Edward Shults has been praised for the films unique camerawork. The filmmaker immerses the Waves audience into a gripping family drama by offering an unexpected pivot in the plot line.

Critics raved for Waves unique narrative structure, whimsical camera work and exhilarating soundtrack featuring songs by Frank Ocean and Radiohead.

Waves is set to be one of the best indie American films of 2019. It features fantastic performances by Kelvin Harrison Jr (Luce), Lucas Hedges (Ben is Back, Boy Erased), Taylor Russell (Lost in Space), Alexa Demie (Euphoria), Clifton Collins Jr (Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) and Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us).

Waves was a surprising hit at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Waves was a surprising hit at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Waves Film Review

Waves is set against the colourful urban landscape of tropical Southern Florida. It tells the story of how one seemingly idyllic African American family quickly fell apart.

Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults offers an epic emotional journey that shares how one family navigates love, forgiveness and coming together in the aftermath of loss.

At its heart, Waves offers an examination of parental pressure and the limitations of parental love – how finding communication between parent and child, and allowing vulnerability to be expressed on both sides, is essential for survival.

At first glance they appear like the perfect representation of a well-to-do suburban family. Waves begins by focussing on the family’s son Tyler, who appears to have everything he needs: a wealthy family, a spot on the high school wrestling team and a gorgeous girlfriend.

Tyler’s father is a well-intentioned yet overly domineering father, determined to ensure his two children get good grades and always strive for perfection. Sterling K. Brown takes on the role of the family’s alpha male, who demands respect from his son and daughter. He takes the family to church each Sunday and ensures everyone share daily updates on what’s going on in their lives each night at the dinner table.

As the story unfolds, the audience recognizes that Tyler’s father may have an unhealthy obsession with his sons success. It seems his enthusiasm for Tyler to achieve number one status at school, in the gym and in his own romantic relationships is rooted in his own personal journey, from rags to riches.

My mom used to say, I have to be hard on you so the world is not harder on you,’” says Sterling K. Brown, who plays the stern and uncompromising patriarch Ronald Williams. Thats Ronalds initial approach with his son, thinking he cant have him going out in the world looking like a fool. Ronald has the best of intentions for his son, but comes to discover, as I have as a father myself, that its better to parent out of love than fear.” 

Tyler’s father works out with him each night after school, ensures he’s finishing all of his assignments on time and demands everyone in the family attend his wrestling matches. While there is also a daughter and wife present in his life, it appears that the needs of the family’s men are a top priority.

Understandably, Tyler feels an overwhelming pressure to live up to his fathers expectations. He lives in a suffocating environment that wades through streams of toxic masculinity. It appears like the family’s plan for Tyler, graduating from high school with a College sports scholarship, may be out of reach.

Adding to the pressure is Tylers disintegrating relationship with his girlfriend Alexis after they come to a disagreement about their own future.

When Alexis informs Tyler that she’s pregnant and doesn’t want to get an abortion he totally loses it. You see, having a child at 17 wasn’t in his plans. Within hours of his aggressive outburst Alexis says she never wants to see him again.

Unequipped emotionally to deal with the sudden breakup and struggling with an intense shoulder injury, Tyler pops pills and sips Scotch whisky in his room while pacing like a tiger in a cage.

When Tyler bursts out of his room that evening the audience sits teetering on the edge of their seat. He explodes at his mother, shoves his father to the floor and steals the keys to his car. Soon after arriving at a house party, Tyler finds Alexis and they’re quickly both consumed by tragedy.

Waves cast and crew Q&A at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

Damaging Effects of Toxic Masculinity

Tyler’s perfect life lands on shaky ground and then rolls into catastrophe. The star athlete is faced with a series of hiccups that snowball into serious situations that he’s unable to deal with mentally and emotionally.

Waves filmmaker Trey Edward Shults has crafted an ambitious and bold narrative that shows how boys in America suffer when expected to live up to a machismo masculine ideal.

When we discover Tyler’s shoulder has been hurting his mother insists he see his doctor before the start of the wrestling season. His doctor tells Tyler he needs to immediately stop any form of physical activity after analyzing X-rays that show he requires emergency surgery. When Tyler is told he may never be able to wrestle again he’s haunted by the idea that his path to College could crash.

Tyler’s troubles begin that evening after his doctor’s appointment when he lies to his family and tells them his arm is fine. Unable to face the reality of his situation, Tyler “mans up” by pushing himself harder. As he struggles through unbearable pain in silence, he becomes addicted to pain medication to make it through each day. By stealing prescription medication, it seems as though Tyler is both numbing his physical pain as well as emotional anguish.

Committed to greatness and under intense scrutiny from his father, Tyler’s perfect facade cracks when pushed to the limit. Like so many teenage boys, Tyler doesnt know where to turn to express his fears, weaknesses, and vulnerability. 

Waves an Incredibly Personal Narrative of Fact & Fiction Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr.

The Waves Plot Unexpectedly Pivots

The Waves film is a uniquely structured story of American life right now, tracing the different trajectories and coping strategies of two South Florida siblings searching for meaning and identity in the wake of trauma. 

Halfway through Waves, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults takes the audience on an unexpected ride. The plot suddenly pivots from Tyler’s tragedy, to how his sister Emily deals with the aftermath of his actions. The narrative seamlessly shifts from Tylers anxiety-ridden downward spiral into Emilys romantic blossoming and renewal.

Shults explains, I had seen Wong Kar-Wais Chungking Express, and it clicked with me that Waves could be a two-part movie focusing on the brother in the first part and the sister in the second, two couples on each side, with the parents linking things throughout.”

Adds Sterling K. Brown, Theres a frenetic energy in the first part of the movie versus the more languid and reflective second portion, which illuminates the siblings and what theyre going through in terms of their respective relationships and their quest for identity. As explosive as the first section is on the page, the second part is beautiful and satisfying in a completely different way.” 

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Making the Waves Film

Waves has been gestating for nearly a decade, beginning well before the Texas-born, Florida-based writer-director made It Comes At Night and Krisha, his critically-acclaimed 2016 debut, which won the Grand Jury Prize at South by Southwest and screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

I was a lot younger when I started thinking about this movie, but it was just images in my head in the vein of a contemporary Dazed & Confused,says Shults. At some point it morphed into the story of Tyler Williams, a 17-year-old teenager who experiences an unfathomable tragedy. Then it became the story of his younger sister Emily, who is navigating her first true love.” 

Shults composed the first draft of Waves in the summer of 2017 and immediately sent it to Kelvin Harrison, Jr., offering him his choice of roles.

Harrison was drawn to the complex, demanding role of Tyler, and once he officially accepted, the actor and filmmaker began working closely on building the character from Harrisons perspective. The young actor wove in a great deal of raw material from his own personal experiences growing up, texting with Shults as he was filming other movies and sharing stories of his own family dynamics, including his relationships with his sisters and parents. 

Over the course of writing the script with Harrisons ongoing input, Ronald Williams became an amalgamation of both Shultsand Harrisons own fathers. My first pass on the script detailed my own experience growing up with my father,says Shults. When Kelvin and I started talking about his dad, it became clear that there was a common dynamic that was going to be central to this story. “ 

To enhance the authenticity of their close on-screen relationship, Harrison and co-star Alexa Demie spent many hours together, sharing secrets and even taking an online course together in codependency. Harrison also practiced wrestling for hours on end during his preparation phase to more accurately convey the pain and rage coursing through Tyler. 

Shults comments, You can feel hope at the end of Waves, like these people can pull through their struggles. Thats the ebb and flow at work at the heart of this story. You know theyre going to pull through and survive, even when it feels like they might drown.” 


Cracks begin to show in the perfect façade of a young athlete’s life, in this palpable and unexpected drama from Trey Edward Shults.

Date Created: November 1, 2019

Runtime: 135 min

  • Genre:
  • Drama
  • Producers:
  • Jim Wilson,
  • Kevin Turen,
  • Director:
  • Trey Edward Shults
  • Writer:
  • Cast:
  • Kelvin Harrison Jr,
  • Sterling K. Brown,
  • Renée Elise Goldsberry,
  • Clifton Collins Jr.,
  • Neal Huff,
  • Alexa Demie,
  • Taylor Russell,
  • Lucas Hedges,
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