After seeing WAVES I feel like I need to catch my breath for two reasons: (1) It was first time back at a cinema in 16 weeks (ahh!) and, (2) it was all kinds of emotional on all kinds of levels (this is why I think it’s aptly called, WAVES. Genius).
First, let’s dive into being back in front of a big screen. As I and about 20 other reviewers arrived, it was like being at a year six dance: coy hellos and awkward evaluations of just how much excitement to show at being in the room were rife. As were tiny pots of hand sanitiser pulled from pockets while we all gave each other socially-distanced berths until being directed where to sit.
The mood was quietly confident as we settled in, my ears pricking up as the surround sound speakers roared to life with the opening credits. “Are they normally that loud?” I wondered. They felt loud. But maybe that’s just my ears getting re-accustomed to the immersive experience that is the movies. What a wonder. The corners of my mouth lifted into a little smile, and I’m sure I heard them say, “We’re back, baby”.
Then, WAVES happened.
Tracing the emotional journey of a suburban African-American family, WAVES depicts the highs and lows of Tyler’s (Kevin Harrison Jr.’s) high-school experience, navigating the expectations of his well-meaning but overbearing father (Sterling K. Brown, This is Us), as Tyler transitions from student to independent adult.
The Pressure of Being Black
Released against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter protests, WAVES has some eye-opening messages about growing up black in the US. Notably when Tyler is fed-up with his strict school and training regime, and his Dad explains he can’t disregard it because black people, “can’t coast on mediocrity – we have to be great to even get a foot in the door”.
It’s a brief exchange, but one that shows the immense pressure many black Americans carry daily. In WAVES it influences how Ronald raises Tyler, and fuels tensions that arise in their relationship.
As teenagers, Tyler and his sister Emily are also exploring what mature romantic relationships look like. They’re working out how to trust, how much of themselves to share with someone else, and all the pitfalls of being so intimately linked to another person. There’s not a lot of room for innocence in their versions of ‘young love’ given all that unfolds in the plot, and parents and carers would be advised there’s a seriousness to their relationships that may be overwhelming for some viewers.
Running at two and a quarter hours, WAVES is an immersive emotional experience. Each character has their own arc, with swathes of lessons on identity, loss, forgiveness, morality and death contained in their story. It’s visually stunning, and a masterclass on creative imagery; the kind of thing film students would muse over after seeing it at festival and declare as ‘iconic’ while they try to emulate it in their own work. Good luck with all the swirling shots and out-of-focus colours; they will make you seasick.
Your heart may also be boggled, as you wrestle with how Tyler’s family handle their various challenges. There are brief moments where the Christian faith they were raised with pops ups, but WAVES paints a largely hopeless picture of how to overcome dark times, and find real joy.
Suffering in Silence
One lesson it would’ve done the family good to learn, is to talk to each other. To share their pain and grief, and then listen. Really listen.
A lot of what tears Tyler’s family apart are hidden struggles. Things not shared because it was thought they only affect the individual. Yet WAVES proves all actions have consequences, and the ripple effects of our personal lives are far-reaching.
It’s an example of Luke 8’s reminder that, “all that’s hidden will come to light”, but WAVES characters could’ve done with someone reminding of the healing salve found in Psalm 34: that God is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.
WAVES is not for the faint of heart, and does come with a warning of strong adult themes and language. And in all seriousness, those with any kind of motion sickness or epilepsy may struggle. It’s quite the heavy-hitter for your first foray back into the outside movie world.
WAVES is in cinemas July 9, rated MA15+.