“Waves” stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry. Credit: A24 Films

Trey Edward Shults, Sterling K. Brown talk new film ‘Waves’

Sterling K. Brown has always admired projects that tell unique stories about black families. So when he read the script for “Waves,” he was immediately intrigued.

“I’d never seen a black family in this particular story,” he said. “I’m used to seeing sensationalized ones where there’s gang violence or the music industry. But these are black folks who are doing alright, and they have their own set of problems. I was drawn to that and wanted to be a part of something I hadn’t seen before on the screen.”

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The drama, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, traces the journey of an upper-middle-class household in Florida. When they endure an earthshaking tragedy, they are forced to reassess how they deal with love, forgiveness and despair.

The filmmaker Trey Edward Shults in New York, Nov. 6, 2019. At 32, the director of “Waves” has made his third and most personal film about how families come together and fall apart.
Photo: Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

Brown plays Ronald Williams, the domineering but well-intentioned father of the family. But the flick, which is distinctively broken into two parts, mostly focuses on Ronald’s teenage children, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Emily (Taylor Russell).

While the first half follows Tyler, a high school wrestling star struggling to navigate his home and romantic life, part two highlights his quieter, younger sister Emily as she falls in love for the first time.

“It’s got this real kinetic feeling to the first half and takes its time in the second,” Sterling said.

“Tyler’s world is kind of crumbling in the beginning,” Shults added. “It’s almost like a panic attack seizing in on you. Then that panic attack happens, and I’m hoping the movie gives you a hug afterward. That’s how things have felt in my life at times.”

“Waves,” which is out Nov. 22, is semi-autobiographical for the 31-year-old filmmaker. He spent about 10 years working on the flick, using elements of his and Harrison’s lives to help mold it.

For months, the two swapped tales about their upbringing through phone calls and text messages. Shults kept track of their similarities and found ways to incorporate their real lives into the script.

Director Trey Edward Shults speaks onstage during the “Waves” screening and Q&A at the 22nd SCAD Savannah Film Festival on November 01, 2019 at Trustees Theater in Savannah, Georgia. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for SCAD)

Much like Tyler, Shults and Harrison were high school stars who dealt with immense pressure; Shults was a standout wrestler, and Harrison was an esteemed musician.

“It’s a very personal film that we all made with a lot of love and care and a beautiful collaboration,” the director said.

Shults, a white man, also said he leaned on Harrison to help him authentically capture the black experience.

During one scene, Ronald tells Tyler, “We are not afforded the luxury of being average — got to work ten times as hard just to get anywhere. I don’t push you because I want to. I push you because I have to.”

Shults said it was important to keep the dialogue honest. But he also wanted to emphasize themes that are universal to all families.

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“The movie is about a lot, and I hope people take different things. But one big message is about the highs and lows of life, the highs and lows of love, and everything in between,” Shults said. “We’re all connected to those feelings, and that’s love. The movie ebbs and flows. For all those reasons combined, the title ‘Waves’ felt right for this.”

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