Florida. Present day. Tyler is in his final year of whatever US-Americans call Secondary schools. He’s a budding wrestler, who is “encouraged” by a father who is all too aware how much harder black boys have to work to achieve any success. Dad’s tough love includes extra training sessions and competitive arm wrestles over family dinners.
Its hard to tell whether Tyler shares his father’s drive or is just scared, but when a doctor tells him that he’s torn a shoulder and needs an immediate operation he keeps it to himself. Fuelling himself with pain killing drugs, he carries on wrestling, which works for a while but then the inevitable happens. There goes the Athletics scholarship that would have paid for University.
To add insult to injury, Tyler’s girlfriend is late with her period and is starting to worry. Tyler is supportive in a way that moves the burden onto her, but to give him his due, he does drive her to the abortion clinic. When one of the fundamentalist Christians demonstrating outside calls him a nigger, he loses it.
Tyler’s girlfriend informs him that she couldn’t go through with the abortion and is considering keeping it. After a row when she says that this is also included in her Right to Choose, he chucks her out of the car. Their remaining conversations take place over social media, and during one of them she dumps him by text message.
Tyler is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the way his life is falling apart, and ups his dependency on drugs and drink. One evening, having drunk a few too many beers, he takes the car keys and drives to a party which he knew his ex will be attending. He violently confronts her in the kitchen.
While the first wave may not knock you over, it makes you lose your balance so you’re less prepared for the next one. By the time the third and fourth waves arrive, you’re on the floor, struggling both literally and figuratively to keep your head above water.
We’re not done yet. The focus shifts onto Emily, Tyler’s sister, who until now has played a meek and supportive role. Emily blames herself for not doing things that she could have done, and is watching her family self-destruct. Her step-mother has entered into what she calls a “period of grieving” and has stopped being functional. Meanwhile, her father feels useless and excluded.
Emily has picked up a new boyfriend – another wrestler who’s a bit bland (Lucas Hedges cast to type) as she could do with a bit of blandness nowadays. They go “up North” to swim and look at marine life, they take ecstasy and run through lawn sprinklers, they have bad sex.
As the boyfriend hears that his estranged and abusive father is dying, Emily persuades him to drive to Missouri, 2 days’ travel away. While they’re away, her step-mother notices that she’s not on any of the Instagram pictures of the parties she’s supposed to be attending. As the boyfriend’s father dies, she gets another chat message calling her home as the family needs fixing.
Cut to pictures of each of the isolated family members coping with their loneliness while a mournful, piano-heavy version of Radiohead’s True Love Waits plays on the soundtrack. Cut to Emily riding a bike, happy, arms outstretched riding into the distance. Fade out.
I very nearly gave this a film a miss, having seen the trailer which made it look like one of those films that always pops up when Oscars are being nominated – well-shot, multiracial, yet light on content and with everything leading to a bland happy ending so that none of the Oscar voters becomes too sad. Then I saw a post by Wulf, who runs Berlin’s fabulous Moviemento and Central cinemas saying that this was one of his films of the year. Thanks for the heads up, Wulf.
There are no easy cop outs in Waves. Although some of the characters hope that a happy family may help them deal with their grief, the evidence that we see on screen makes us doubt their optimism. Similarly, we are shown that while people may be pressured by circumstance into doing very bad things, no excuses are made. We are left in no doubts how very bad these things are, and how they affect other people.
Waves is a very rare thing – an intelligent coming of age drama, which understands its characters but knows when they have gone too far. With the possible exception of Emily, all its characters are flawed, and must deal with the consequences of their bad judgements. I’m not so sure that its my film of the year, but its certainly up there. When in doubt, listen to Wulf.