“Filmed images offer more astute ways into the experience of grief than words do.”
These are the words of author Richard Armstrong, whose novel Mourning Films: A Critical Study of Loss and Grieving in Cinema outlines the means in which film can act as an expression of love and loss. He argues that the “mourning film”, an original category that focuses on a protagonist’s emotional journey in the aftermath of a great loss, is a subset deserving of its own genre. His belief is that a mourning film “can offer a space for dialogue around death” in a manner that can enable a therapeutic experience for audiences. It may be a universal experience, but the portrayal of grief on-screen comes in many different forms. Even more diverse is the expression of the healing process that follows.
In the case of Waves (dir. Trey Edward Shults, 2019), recovery comes in the form of love, family, and most significantly, forgiveness. A film rife with tragedy, Waves follows the story of one family from South Florida navigating a life-changing incident. The first hour of the film follows Tyler, a high school athlete whose life seemingly crumbles with the news that an injury has effectively ended his wrestling career. Tyler’s downfall culminates in an argument with his girlfriend, where he pushes her and unintentionally kills her, earning him a life sentence in prison. The latter half of the film is told entirely from the perspective of Tyler’s sister, Emily, as she and her family cope with the ramifications of his actions.
The film is split in such a way that instead of feeling like a traditional three-act structure, I saw it as two distinct halves with different stories. Tyler’s half is kinetic, a vibrantly colored sprint to the inevitable accident. Waves then transitions to Emily’s story, and from this point forward, the tone can be best described as gentle, and the pacing as patient.
The complete replacement of a protagonist halfway through a movie is a technique I had never seen until Waves, but it was a masterful choice when considering this as a mourning film. The film feels anchored around the accident, which emphasizes the contrast between the lives of the characters before and after. This is important as the ‘after’ portion is when Waves truly becomes a mourning film. Emily is more effective as a protagonist here because her grief is more relatable to the audience, and the omission of Tyler allows this grief to be explored in full. In addition, her mourning results from the loss of Tyler from her life, who has essentially died in the eye of the family, and his complete absence from this part of the film makes that clear.
Through Tyler’s half, we learn about the dynamics of his family and we watch how his arrest tears them apart. Conversely, Emily’s half then depicts the time it takes for her and her parents to pick up the pieces of their lives one by one and put them back together again. At the beginning of her story, Emily finds her first romantic love, and this introduces optimism back into her life. Inspired by this, she reconciles with her father, then her mother, and we see how this helps them to mend their marriage.
But, as I mentioned, forgiveness lies at the heart of this story. In the second half of the film, every member of Tyler’s family blames themselves and each other for his actions, and Emily especially harbors an intense resentment towards him. As they each learn to love again, they also begin to gradually forgive Tyler and even themselves.
Waves depicts an emotional turmoil so intimately that to the audience, at times, it feels as though we are experiencing the same pain as the characters on screen. But, in the same sense, their rehabilitation in the second act also extends to us, and we can experience a catharsis through their hope.
Waves is currently streaming on Showtime.
Armstrong, Richard. Mourning Films: A Critical Study of Loss and Grieving in Cinema. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.