“You don’t know how good you got it,”
So Ronald Williams tells his son, Tyler. And maybe he’s right.
Take a peek through the window of Tyler’s life—his Instagram feed or Facebook posts or even through his literal window—and it sure looks like Tyler’s got it good. His mother’s a doctor, his father an architect. They live in a beautiful house filled with beautiful things, and Tyler’s got a beautiful future ahead of him. He’s a skilled high school wrestler with aspirations of earning a college scholarship. And his girlfriend, Alexis? She’s beautiful, too.
But look under the skin, and Tyler’s life holds a few ugly secrets.
Alexis missed her period. It’s two, maybe three weeks late. She’s scared she might be pregnant. And if she is, what are they going to do?
Tyler’s shoulder is torn up something awful as well. His doctor tells him that he should shut it down now, before he does permanent damage to it. Finishing the wrestling season is out of the question. Even with surgery, the shoulder will likely never be the same. It’ll take months to heal right. Maybe years.
But he can’t stop wrestling—not with the state championship and a scholarship on the line, not with Tyler’s exacting father expecting so much from him. So he pretends that everything’s fine, stealing his dad’s Oxycodone to help him deal with the pain. To help him deal with everything.
Ronald knows nothing of this, of course. Neither does Tyler’s doting stepmom, Catherine. His real life remains a secret to them both. Only his little sister, Emily, has a clue, and only because they share a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. When he passes out in the bathtub, she sees the water seep under the door. When he vomits on the bathroom floor, she cleans it up for him as he sobs, pleading with him to be quiet so they don’t wake the parents.
Ronald doesn’t know how bad Tyler’s got it. But Tyler’s secrets won’t stay locked in his own personal pressure cooker forever. And Tyler himself just might explode.
[Warning: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
“Love is a four-letter word,” we hear a pastor say near the outset of Waves. “And so is hate.”
We see some of both here. But while hate, lies and abuse tear apart lives, Waves tells us that love builds them up. Love heals. Here, love, even in the face of a long, painful history of hate, always proves to be stronger.
Without giving too much away (at least in this section), Tyler makes some terrible choices that lead to a tragic, life-shattering night. His actions impact a great many people. But the pastor mentioned above offers a taste of foreshadowing in his sermon, too: “If we spent more time loving one another, hate would cease.”
Near the end of the film, Emily confesses how much she hates her brother for what he did. But her father, Ronald, calms her down. “He’s not a monster,” he says. “He’s not evil. He’s just a human being. … I think about your brother every day. The things I could’ve done differently. But we can’t change it, you know? All we have is now.”
Later, Emily talks with her boyfriend, Luke, whose own abusive father is dying, alone, of cancer. Luke has no plans to see him until Emily says that he should. “You’ll seriously regret it if you don’t.” This leads to a not-so-positive road trip to Missouri to visit Luke’s dying dad (which we’ll talk more about below); but the resulting, difficult reunion winds up being a healing experience for both father and son. Other relationships are repaired in the aftermath of Tyler’s actions, all powered by love and forgiveness.
We see other, smaller virtues in play here, too—even if those virtues can twist a bit. For instance, Ronald’s pressure on his son might’ve contributed to what Tyler later does. But that pressure is born out of Ronald’s desire to see his son succeed. Ronald himself clearly earned his success and tries to encourage his son to have the same ethic. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average,” he tells Tyler. “You gotta take pride in what you do, son,” he exhorts elsewhere. “never forget that.” And Luke, when he first begins wooing Emily, seems not to care that she’s related to Tyler—unlike a bevy of online trolls.
Faith is important to many Williams family members, especially to Ronald. We learn that his own father was a pastor, and he paraphrases his dad’s favorite verse, Proverbs 10:12: “Hatred stirs up strife,” he says, “But love, love covers all offenses.” When Tyler begins to doze off in a church service, Ronald gives him an icy glare. (“Were you bored with that sermon?” he snaps at Tyler during lunch afterward.)
Tyler seems indifferent to faith for much of the movie. It’s telling that when Tyler commits his most egregious act, Kanye West’s “I Am a God” plays in the background. But in a quiet moment later, he bows his head in prayer before a meal, suggesting newfound humility.
Emily tells Luke that she was “raised Christian,” which is an interesting choice of words. She still seems to embrace aspects of the faith; but she stresses that if she is Christian, she’s not a judgmental one. When Luke picks up some liquor, he initially apologizes either for doing so or for not being particularly Christian himself. But Emily says it doesn’t bother her, telling him that she doesn’t believe in judging people because “they’re not Christian or Catholic or whatever.”
This conversation takes place while Chance the Rapper’s version of “How Great Is Our God” plays in the background, with the movie placing special emphasis on the Rev. Rudy Bropleh’s contribution to Chance’s song: “The first is that God is better than the world’s best thing,” he says. “God is better than the best things the world has to offer.” Luke promises his dying father that he’s going to a better place.
The movie treats other aspects of faith (and faith-centric activism) as less positive. Protesters outside an abortion clinic holler at women going in that both they and their baby will go to hell. “Thou shall not kill!” another activist shouts. We hear someone referred to in a text as a “goddess.” A song makes mention of Nirvana and getting a “glimmer of God.”
Obviously, Tyler and Alexis are sexually active. We see them kiss and make out frequently, and Alexis does indeed get pregnant by Tyler. Later, Tyler accuses Alexis of sleeping with someone else: Alexis denies it, telling Tyler that the boy she was with happens to be a longtime friend who’s gay.
Tyler takes a pic of himself in his underwear and sends it to Alexis. Elsewhere, we see Tyler take a shower after wrestling practice (his exposed rear is visible). There’s also a visual suggestion of masturbation (involving porn), though nothing critical is shown.
The latter half of the movie spends more time with Emily and Luke’s relationship. They make out frequently (including in a lake filled with manatees and in a park filled with working sprinklers), and we see the couple’s first sexual encounter. (Both are covered by blankets, but it’s obvious from position, mannerisms and conversation what’s happening.) We see them shower and take a bath together (we see his bare chest and her from the shoulders up). And, of course, there’s the multiday trip they take to visit Luke’s dying father: They share hotel rooms, sleep in the car’s back seat and cozy up in an easy chair by the hospital bed for seemingly several nights. They sometimes swim together, and she wears a thong-style bathing suit.
Ronald and wife Catherine get in an argument because she refuses to have sex with him. Some high school women wear slightly revealing promwear. Tyler is seen shirtless quite often. Ronald and Tyler work out together, both flexing frequently in the mirror. We hear references to body parts and sexual activities in some of the movie’s songs.
Reminder: This review contains spoilers, and that’s especially true of this section.
Tyler accidentally kills a girl. They get into a bad confrontation during a prom after-party. She slaps and pushes him away several times, and he (under the influence of both drink and drugs) punches her in the face. She falls on the floor and apparently cracks her head: Blood surrounds it, and Tyler is unable to revive her. We see the girl several times in her unconscious, bloodied state: We don’t see her die, but rather hear a heart monitor utter that telltale monotone note. The girl’s parents stand by her gravestone.
Tyler initially takes Alexis to have an abortion. But after she goes into the back room and then walks out, she admits to Tyler that she couldn’t go through with it. “What do you mean you couldn’t do it?!” a furious Tyler asks. “It’s my body!” Alexis tells him. He continues to push her to get an abortion, but she decides she’d rather keep the baby—and given the pressure he puts on her, Alexis doesn’t want Tyler involved.
Tyler arm-wrestles his father at a restaurant, and the two seem very close to physical confrontation elsewhere. Tyler competes in a couple of wrestling matches—one in which he reinjures his shoulder terribly. He practices with teammates and, when he’s in a bad state of mind, makes one of them bleed.
Luke tells Emily that his father did “some pretty terrible stuff to me and my mom,” especially to Luke’s mother. A security guard at an abortion clinic warns patients that some of the “crazy” women out there carry guns, and they’ve been known to use them.
Several people post vile, and violently tinged, messages on social media in the wake of Tyler’s act—aimed, of course, at Tyler, but also at his family. One says that he hopes Tyler gets “gang raped every day” in prison. “I bet he beat her all the time,” another opines. One suggests that Tyler should kill himself, and still another says, “His whole family deserves to die.”
Nearly 100 f-words and another 15 s-words. We also hear (or read) “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—,” “p—y,” “f-g”, “sucks” and 10 uses of the n-word. God’s name is misused at least 14 times, once with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused once.
Tyler begins stealing his father’s Oxycodone to deal with the pain in his shoulder. (His dad notices that some of his tablets are missing, but he doesn’t pursue it any further.) But as Tyler’s life spins further out of his control, so does his substance abuse. He pours vodka into an opaque glass and drinks often from it. He smokes marijuana at a party, becoming wildly impaired.
On the fateful night when he makes some terrible decisions, Tyler does so under the influence of Oxy (which he swallows and snorts), liquor and possibly other drugs, too. He passes out in the bathtub while under the influence (sending water flowing over the edge) and gets seriously sick in that same bathroom later.
But if the movie stresses how negative Tyler’s drug use is, it appears to give a pass to Emily’s and Luke’s own recreational-substance experiments. As mentioned, Luke buys alcohol, and we later see him, Emily and some new friends smoke what appears to be marijuana. Later, they go to a party where Ecstasy is available. Both apparently partake, leading to, in the movie’s eyes, is a romantic and innocuous run/makeout session in a park. This is all despite the facts that Luke’s father was abusive because he was “drunk and on drugs a lot,” and Emily’s birth mother died of an overdose.
We see Tyler vomit several times. Emily cleans up after him as he weeps uncontrollably. Luke’s father also throws up in the hospital as he inches toward death. A protestor shouts a racial slur at Tyler. Both Tyler and Emily lie to their parents, and Tyler treats his folks incredibly disrespectfully one evening.
We see plenty of fractures in the Williams family even before Tyler’s terrible mistake, many of which are exacerbated in the aftermath. As mentioned, Ronald and Tyler have a complex relationship, with Ronald pushing Tyler very hard to achieve—pressure that contributes to Tyler’s emotional state.
Meanwhile, both parents seem to be a bit distant from Emily, who seems distant in return. And Ronald and Catharine’s own marriage—already strained, it would seem, before Tyler’s act—nearly breaks apart afterward, with Catharine at one point telling Ronald that he makes her sick.
“I just love her so much,” he confesses to someone. “But I’m losing her, and I don’t know what to do.”
Ronald takes Tyler on a tour of a house he’s building—bragging about the size of the master bedroom and the quality of the construction.
“It all starts with a piece of dirt, [and it] turns into something magnificent,” he says.
So it is with Waves. The movie plunges us into the mud and muck, but reminds us it’s possible to climb back out again, and even make something beautiful out of it.
Waves is a story of death and rebirth, of being lost and being found. It does indeed follow and, in many ways, feel like a wave: We follow a destructive surge into a tragedy that threatens to wash everything away, but then find in its murky waters life and hope and even beauty. The Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang writes, “By the end it has achieved what feels like a state of grace.”
That’s absolutely true. Grace is found here. But for our purposes, it’s bought with a price.
The movie (directed by the up-and-coming director Trey Edward Shults) takes us on a painful journey through Tyler’s self-inflicted destruction, showing us all the elements that lead to his almost Shakespearian story arc. His drug and alcohol use are a huge part of that fall. His sexual behavior, and its aftermath, is a massive contributor. And his unwillingness to talk to his parents about any of his troubles—to seek help, albeit difficult help, from the people who might best be able to help him—prove to be his undoing. He acts, as West’s song indicated, his own god. He will listen to no one else.
When the story moves away from Tyler and to Emily, Waves begins its journey toward grace. Emily finds, through her own experiences, new life and new hope, and grants it to others.
And yet her own journey is not all that different. She drinks and experiments with drugs. She has sex with her boyfriend. She lies to her parents (though, admittedly, she confesses later). And here’s the interesting thing: Waves wants us to see the similarities in some parts of Tyler’s and Emily’s respective story arcs. We see that, in a sense, Emily ends her arc where Tyler’s began—sporting some important differences but also troubling similarities.
I wonder if Shults wanted us to feel that sense of unease. Even as Emily hurtles toward redemption, her life feels like a more hopeful echo of Tyler’s own. But perhaps if Waves went on, her own surf crash would come.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.