waves 2019 film

“You never really know what’s coming.”

“You never really know what’s coming. A small wave, or maybe a big one. All you can really do is hope that when it comes, you can surf over it, instead of drown in its monstrosity.” – Alysha Speer

I didn’t learn how to swim until the eighth grade. My dad had previously encouraged me to learn, but he wasn’t the best teacher. My lack of training was more a case of him not having the resources and tools than the interest or care.

As a child, my mom would take me to the Shepherd Center to use its swimming pool. She participated in a physical therapy class to help her deal with the effects of multiple sclerosis on her body. A part of that therapy was group exercise in the water.

One day, I tip-toed a little too far toward the deep end. I flailed my arms around, the water occasionally pushing me up to grab air only to pull me back in. My mom, who I don’t remember being that tall, slowly walked my way and wrapped her arm around me. She saved me. Not that I was in any true or grave danger. There were too many people around to let me drown.

Still, I wondered what would happen when my mom isn’t around. When no one is around? What if I drift to the deep end on my own?

The private school I attended required that students knew how to swim. The school had both the care and the resources to ensure it. When it came time to spend a month of gym class testing our capabilities, I had to make a confession I had always found embarrassing: I didn’t know how to swim.

While the other students were working on their backstrokes and using the diving boards, I was learning how not to sink. There wasn’t time nor a reasonable expectation for me to become a skilled swimmer. The goal was to become a good enough swimmer for survival. Any further training would have to happen without my school’s assistance.

The pool has always felt more secure than the ocean. Waves come in different sizes despite crashing against us in a rhythmic beat. In life, we try to plan our days based on that bit of consistency, but in truth, the day has its own plans for us. Sometimes we overcome them. Other times, we are overcome by them. The difference is in seeing who gets washed away, and who can treat the wave like nothing more than a speed bump.

kelvin harrison jr waves film
Dinner with family: Kevin Harrison Jr. as Tyler in “Waves”

In Waves, Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Tyler, a high school student whose days suddenly lose its consistency. Tyler’s life is fairly routine. He goes to class, attends wrestling practice, spends time with his girlfriend, goes to church, has dinner with his family. Nothing particularly unique, but it’s his life and one he can generally count on staying the same every day.

Then he finds out his shoulder is severely injured. He then damages it permanently by continuing to wrestle. Then his girlfriend announces she is pregnant. It’s one wave after another. With each one that crashes against his life, he can only do enough to stay afloat and survive another second or minute. He can’t swim or surf over the waves.

It’s the challenge that comes with straying from the safety and secure arms of his parents. Tyler’s father, Ronald (played by Sterling K. Brown), feels a successful path for Tyler is in making sure they stay close. Ronald can be over-bearing. He gives his son enough space to explore, but keeps the leash just long enough to pull Tyler back when he messes up.

Most of us would see this as a father being too hard on his son. If my father were still here today, he would say Ronald didn’t want to see his son drown. So Ronald stays a few paces back of Tyler, ensuring he can be rescued if the water gets too deep. But in the process, Tyler never learns how to navigate the waters on his own.

In the end, Tyler ultimately drowns in the monstrosity of confronting his now pregnant ex-girlfriend at a house party. A party he wasn’t invited to, mind you. As you watch, you get a sense the last wave, the strongest wave, is on the way. You hope, maybe pray, that everyone can surf over the wave. You’ll settle for them merely surviving.

But Tyler can’t see the wave at all. He can’t sense what’s coming. He’s in too deep. He’s only focused on the person in front of him, wildly flailing his arms in anger and rage at the mother of a child he never wanted. He’s no longer swimming. He’s not even treading water. He’s in a panic, and no one is there to wrap their arms around him.

sterling k brown waves 2019 film
The wave hits: Sterling K. Brown as Ronald in “Waves”

Ronald arrives to the house too late. Tyler has already left, trying to flee the police. Ronald wants to desperately reach out and save his son, following him into the water. But Tyler is too far in front. All Ronald can do is watch in horror as the wave, the ex-girlfriend being placed in the back of an ambulance, went by without his son. Tyler has been washed away, and all Ronald is left to do is wonder how it happened.

As Ronald stood outside the house party, trying to comfort his daughter (who, I should mention, was at the party and saw Tyler), I’m curious to know what went through his mind. Did he feel guilt? Did he blame himself? Did he try to piece together just how the hell they ended up in this terrible place? I can’t imagine being a father who tried so hard to raise a good son, only to watch his efforts–most likely misguided–crumble in an instant.

I’ve had moments where I wondered what’s the best way to prepare our children for life. Do we hold their hands as long as possible and never let them swim too far? Do we hope they stay in the shallow parts of the water? Or do we train them as well as possible so they can be prepared to swim on their own? The prospect of being a parent sounds terrifying.

Ronald taught his son how to survive the water. But Ronald never taught Tyler how to actually swim without him. That was on Tyler to figure out. And he tried. Tyler grew tired of his father always standing over him, always trying to coach him and guide his training. So, Tyler took the risk of swimming on his own. And he drowned.

Ronald did his best. He did what he thought was best. Same goes for my parents. Maybe for yours, too. That’s what makes embarking on life so difficult. It’s not a science, and we don’t all get the same results. How much training do we need before we’re truly ready to face life? What kind of training do we need? When do we know we’re ready to let go of the hand that guides us?

To this day, I am still a terrible swimmer. Survival is all I learned. No one is around to rescue me, and when they were, I never wanted their help. It’s now on me to try and learn how to swim alone. I hope I don’t drown in the process.

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