The Liberty of Forgiveness in ‘Waves’

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– By Sam Hendrian –

*Contains spoilers

Waves is one of the most powerful movies I have seen in a long time. It is complicatedly simple, heartbreakingly inspiring, and many other perplexing paradoxes. While tough to watch at times, it had me spontaneously praying, “Oh God, this is beautiful!” on multiple occasions, and if that is not a sign of impactful art, I do not know what is.

The beginning of Waves is like any other high school/family drama. Teenage protagonists try desperately to foster romance and have a good time while juggling the immense pressures placed on them by their “Be excellent” parents. A senior athlete named Tyler appears to be our hero for the first half hour of the film as he suffers through intense wrestling practices and works towards being a good son and a good boyfriend.

But like most teenagers, Tyler is wracked with deep-rooted immaturity and emotional instability, and he tragically succumbs to these struggles past the point of no return. In a horrific scene of revolting rage, he strikes and unintentionally kills his pregnant ex-girlfriend Alexis, which brings upon him a life prison sentence for murder of the second degree. His dad, stepmom, and younger sister Emily are heartbroken and guilt-stricken, wishing they could have done something to reverse Tyler’s rash descent into violent rage.

We quickly learn that Tyler is not going to be the hero nor the main focus of the story. Rather, it is his younger sister Emily, a girl who is perhaps equally immature to her brother yet blessed with a richly compassionate heart that she listens to before any rash impulses. Even more than her dad and stepmom, Emily feels immense guilt for her brother’s crime, as she saw him angrily following his ex-girlfriend into a private room that night and did not do anything to stop him. Beyond that, she is afflicted by a torturously quiet rage, a heartbroken hatred for her big brother because of the evil thing that he did.

Emily grieves in silence until she meets an awkward but friendly fellow high school student named Luke with whom she opens up and begins a romantic relationship. Luke is tortured by a quiet rage of his own directed at his alcoholic, absentee father who now lies in a hospital dying from cancer. “He’s an asshole, he deserves it!” Luke quickly retorts when Emily expresses sympathy. But Emily knows that Luke will regret it if he does not reconcile with his dad before death, and she convinces him to drive 1,000 miles to the hospital and offer mercy before it is too late.

Of course, Emily still needs to foster mercy in her own heart, and the counsel she gives Luke does not quite originate from her own experience or wisdom. Rather, it is influenced by a crucial conversation she has with her father in a scene that Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune rightfully called one of the most perfect movie scenes of the year.

Sitting by a pond with her father, she breaks down and tells him that she hates Tyler for doing such an evil thing and for being a “monster.” Her father gently replies:

“He’s not a monster. He’s not evil. He’s 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.”

All we have is now. And if we still have now, then we still have a choice to forgive, a choice to be liberated from our hatred. As Emily tearfully embraces her father, she realizes that she desires such liberation; she just needs a little more time to find it.

When Emily accompanies her boyfriend to visit his dying dad in the hospital, she is profoundly moved by the reconciliation she witnesses, a reconciliation she encouraged but perhaps never expected to see in such vivid technicolor. Luke embraces and comforts his remorseful father, which sparks a crucial flashback in Emily’s mind.

Earlier in the film before Tyler commits murder, he comes home drunk/stoned one night, and Emily wakes up to the sound of him vomiting. Rushing to the bathroom, she throws her arms around her brother and patiently comforts him. It is a scene that almost moved me to tears, as I have three little sisters, and my heart was stirred by the tender uniqueness of a close brother-sister relationship that was so beautifully on display.

This flashback Emily experiences while watching Luke and his dying father is the culmination of her spiritual journey. Even more so than when she had that illuminating waterside conversation with her father, she knows that she has to forgive her older brother. And she makes the brave decision to do so.

How do we see that Emily has made this decision? The answer is purely poetic and quietly unforgettable. In the opening scene of the movie, we watch Emily riding her bike down the street with her arms up in the air. It is a seemingly random shot — until the same shot closes out the movie. Emily is riding her bike with no hands because she is free. No words need to be said; we understand the choice that she has made.

Waves is a film that may leave you in tears, anger, or a mixture of complex emotions. It is certainly not a cinematic experience that can be classified as “enjoyable.” But it is undeniably powerful, and it reminds us of our ever-so-human need to be liberated from hatred and any vices we daily combat. Liberty is a choice that is and ever shall be ours; let us seek the grace to choose rightly.

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Sam Hendrian is a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University (Class of 2019) pursuing an emphasis in Directing.

For more articles by Sam, click here.

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