Premiering at the Telluride Film Festival this past August, “Waves” (2019) is a detailed study of a black family in South Florida — father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), stepmother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) and son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Directed and written by Trey Edward Shults, the film navigates various aspects of these characters; at its heart are Emily and Tyler, who struggle with being young and learning about relationships. And while “Waves” might present itself as a slower and more thoughtful swim in the ocean, a tragedy mid-film pulls the story under the surface and forces these characters to put themselves back together again.
In a phone interview, Shults discussed making “Waves” and why the story of Tyler and Emily was so important for him to tell.
“It’s really about trying to understand how a tragedy happens and then, for a family, trying to rebuild as much as possible given how terrible this is,” Shults said. That tragedy is felt through two perspectives: first Tyler and then Emily, before “sort of exploding out in key moments for them, and there’s this sort of ripple effect felt throughout everyone in the film.” Shults noted that telling the story in this way was a privilege, allowing him and the audience to connect to these characters at a deeper level than their circumstances.
The story is personal; it has various auto-biographical elements that Shults uses to understand the film’s characters. “Aspects of it were brewing for a long time,” he commented. “Very personal things between myself, my girlfriend, my family.” But Shults also made sure the script wasn’t just his ideas — he worked with Harrison Jr. on the character of Tyler. Shults and Harrison Jr. had previously worked together on “It Comes at Night” (2017). “I think for myself it was getting to the other side of things in life, and having perspective on those things, perspective being really huge to put these things together and do a coherent story and then also collaboration,” Shults said.
Some of the most appealing aspects of “Waves” are its cinematography and setting — the film takes place across various locations in South Florida, like the city of Hollywood. Shults and cinematographer Drew Daniels rely on bursting colors and gorgeous landscapes to make the film feel fresh. “We lived there for a number of years and I just love that area in Broward County,” Shults said, “and I just love the energy down there, it just feels special and it feels right.” He felt like the area was personal and the right backdrop for this family and this story. The music adds to the feel, too; the soundtrack features Frank Ocean, with some Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, SZA and Amy Winehouse. The soundtrack is both seemingly what Tyler and Emily might listen to on a drive on Hollywood Beach and a way to elevate the feel of the film.
“Waves” also thrives on other strong choices with the camera, which moves and swirls like its own characters — in the opening scene, Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis Lopez (Alexa Demie) drive while blasting music, the camera spinning in between them like a passenger in the car. “Pretty much everything in the filmmaking is meant to immerse you in a subjective experience,” Shults said. And he noted that these choices were directly influenced by the story’s narrow focus on Tyler and Emily. “We approached anything with the cinematography and the camera movement with, ‘What is honest to Tyler?’ or ‘What is honest to Emily in this moment?’ and their relationship and where their loves are.”
The central tragedy takes a long time to boil in “Waves” — the viewer first sees Tyler as a successful high school athlete, but a failing performance due to a damaged shoulder combined with his girlfriend’s pregnancy prompt his destruction. It’s upsetting to watch Tyler’s family react to his fall from grace, but the film takes time afterwards to rebuild everything through the eyes of Emily, focusing on her blossoming relationship with her boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges). “Waves” takes its time to heal after the trauma.
Watching Tyler’s spiral is incredibly tough. There are scenes — like a particular moment where Tyler’s anger bursts and he destroys his entire bedroom — that contrast well with nice moments of laughter at breakfast after church or Tyler and Alexis kissing in the ocean. “Going to some of these places was hard because we wanted to make it feel honest and true and really go there,” Shults said. He was clear that while shooting some of “Waves” was incredibly fun, there were some emotionally exhausting moments.
And that dichotomy is best sold by the incredible acting present throughout the film, from Brown’s dominating father figure to Hedges’ somewhat goofy and awkward love interest. “I had just seen ‘Manchester by the Sea’ (2016) and loved it and loved him in it,” Shults said, “and we met, and it just clicked.” Shults described getting Brown in “Waves” as “just a dream” and noted that all of the cast blew him away when reading for the roles. “All I tried to do was work with good human beings who were greatly talented and loved what we were trying to do and wanted to collaborate and build each other up.”
Arguably the most rewarding plot of the film is Emily’s support for Luke as he heals his own past family trauma. Luke discovers that his father, who he has been estranged from, is dying, and Emily persuades Luke to go see him. “In her pushing him to do this, I think it pushes her to a new place with her grief internally,” Shults noted. It’s this moment where much of “Waves” comes together — Emily helps herself find peace while helping Luke and then brings peace to her own family, particularly her father, Ronald.
That’s where Shults is able to make “Waves” feel like a cleansing experience, which the film presents in its final shot of Emily riding her bike in silence, the sun shining bright and the air seemingly warm and inviting. It invites the viewer to see the world through her eyes and understand more about this particular family’s process in dealing with a traumatic experience — the coping is the story, not necessarily the event itself.
“Waves” will be released everywhere on Dec. 6.