Movie review by
Tara McNamara, Common Sense Media
Waves Movie Poster Image
Intense drama reflects teen culture; substance use, cursing.
  • R
  • 2019
  • 135 minutes

Parents say

age 16+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 16+
Based on 2 reviews

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We think this movie stands out for:

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Examines the humanity of a terrible tragedy. Referencing Bible verse 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ("Love is patient, love is kind..."), it explores what love looks like, showing a range of romantic and family relationships and life pursuits, some of which are healthy and some of which aren't. Painful experiences can help us grow. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Follows a devout, upper-middle-class family of color with a strong family dynamic and hands-on, involved parents. The kids attend a diverse high school, and both teens are in committed relationships. A stepmother loves and cares for her stepchildren deeply. Still, as this is a story about the human experience with all its faults and flaws, there's plenty of iffy behavior on display -- including teens drinking, smoking pot, doing drugs.


Quite a bit of discussion and on-screen depiction of death. Brief but impactful domestic violence. Several heated arguments. A character stalks a young woman. Discussion of abortion.


A monogamous teen couple engages in their first sexual experience under the covers. Discussion of teen pregnancy. Strong focus on idealistic teen romance; one couple is noted for physical attractiveness. Married couple fights about lack of sex.


Constant extreme language, particularly from teens, including and especially "f--k." Also "a--hole," "bitch," "goddamn," and "s--t."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Frequent substance abuse by aspirational teen characters, including stealing and swallowing/snorting prescription pills from parents, drinking alcohol like it's water. Teens shown drinking alcohol, smoking pot; one couple takes Ecstasy and then has "cute" adventures. A character drinks and drives without consequence. Mentions of abuse and death as result of substance abuse.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Waves is an intense, powerful drama starring Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) about how a suburban South Florida family tries to move forward after tragedy. It's likely to appeal to teens: It mostly deals with high school life, and Euphoria's Alexa Demie plays a pivotal role. It has themes of forgiveness, empathy, and compassion, but be ready for some pretty mature content. Teen substance abuse is normalized: High schoolers smoke pot, drink, and do drugs. The plot explores what love looks like, as well as what love is not, although a pivotal romantic relationship, while toxic, appears so enviable that it may be hard for teens to totally understand the difference. A young couple in a long-term relationship has sex (nongraphic), and discussion of teen pregnancy and abortion dominates a portion of the film. There's nonstop use of "f--k" and other curse words, mostly by teens, and a brief moment of intense domestic violence.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byEnro June 23, 2020


Depressing drama with no focus. Underdeveloped characters. Even Sterling Brown, who I think is a great actor, couldn’t save it.
Adult Written byDdiaz809 December 1, 2019

Waves Review

Waves stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown, Taylor Russell, Alexa Demie, Lucas Hedges, and Renée Elise Goldsberry in this drama about a family that unde... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written bypandalover234 February 25, 2020

Not what you expect

While the movie does an amazing job of cinematically capturing certain scenes and elements, it just didn't sit right with me. I remember seeing the trailer... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byAlexa3005 December 31, 2019
My mind is still blown from this one and it’s been over 3 weeks since I saw it. The cinematography is insane. It’s pretty dark, but so good. Some mature themes,... Continue reading

What's the story?

In WAVES, high school senior Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) appears to have an enviable life: He's a popular athlete with a big future, a caring family, and a beautiful, loving girlfriend. When those elements start to unravel, while he's also feeling pressure from his caring but overbearing father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), Tyler quietly struggles to keep it all going. When a tragedy occurs, the family must find a way to piece themselves back together and move forward.

Is it any good?

Writer-director Trey Edwards Shults lobs a cinematic ticking time bomb here, using intense visual and audio elements to create palpable dread. When it all blows up, viewers watch, agape, as the smoke clears into a peaceful haze. The entire experience feels new and innovative, starting from Waves first moments, with 360-degree camera work gliding in rhythm with psychedelic rock (part of a phenomenal soundtrack) and encircling a young couple in love who are singing at the top of their lungs while driving down Miami's US 1. There's nothing about the scene that doesn't scream happiness, but the audience instantly understands: Don't get comfortable. 

It's an intense experience, intent on evoking empathy and compassion. Waves looks at an act that most would call the work of a monster and then opens viewers' hearts to realize that there's more to the story. And that even if there is more to the story, that doesn't make it OK. All the moving parts that lead to the movie's central tragedy are accounted for, including the pressure parents put on kids to succeed. Ronald delivers a haunting line to Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), one that speaks to the unfair struggle of the Black community: "We are not afforded the luxury of being average." It doesn't feel over the top, and it doesn't feel untrue, and yet the audience feels the weight of that statement on Tyler's shoulders: He cannot disappoint his family, his community, his race. More notably, as Tyler's story comes to a halt, the film transitions to his reserved younger sister. It's no coincidence that Emily (Taylor Russell) only starts to shine once Tyler's story goes dark; she represents all kids who grow up in the shadow of "star" siblings. The film hits on themes of love, forgiveness, redemption, and faith. It's an impactful film about a family, but it's not just for parents; with the phenomenal soundtrack, edgy cinematography, and honest reflection of high school culture, it's one that will serve as a magnet for teens, too.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the pressure kids can feel from their parents to perform and succeed. Do you think that affects the characters in Waves? Why do you think the father gave that type of attention to his son and not his daughter? Do you think sexism still exists within families for expectations put upon daughters?

  • Is the substance use in the film glamorized or normalized? How does it compare to real life? Are there realistic consequences? Why does that matter?

  • Did you feel empathy or compassion for the characters? How does the filmmaker achieve this?

  • Talk about teen pregnancy and sex. Can you think of other movies and TV shows that have tackled these subjects? How does this film approach the topics differently?

  • How does the movie depict cyberbullying? Why do you think people feel they can say things on social media that they wouldn't say to someone's face? When should parents intervene in a cyberbullying situation?

Movie details

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