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In 'Waves,' Mexican American actress Alexa Demie underscores the price of defiance

Despite tragedy, the movie shows how people can listen and even forgive, says Demie, best known for a starring role in HBO's teen drama, "Euphoria."
Alexa Demie and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a scene from "Waves."
Alexa Demie and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a scene from "Waves."A24 / via AP

So much of Trey Edward Shults’s new film “Waves” is about coping with the pressures of different identities — being black or white, being a parent or a child, being a boyfriend or a girlfriend. But for the Mexican American actress Alexa Demie, the movie is about breaking the outer shells of those identities to connect with something deeper.

In "Waves," Demie — best known for a leading role in HBO's new teen drama, "Euphoria," — plays the girlfriend of a popular high school wrestler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who is coping with the intense pressure to excel, especially exerted by his father.

The first half of the movie follows Demie and Harrison's characters in the everyday drama of their teenage romance, which forcefully builds up to a devastating tragedy.

But in the aftermath of that pain, Demie says, the movie shows how people can break away from mischaracterizations of each other when they open themselves up to listening and forgiving.

“In a culture where we are so quick to attack each other, cancel each other out, this movie shows that you can find truth by listening and forgiving,” Demie said.

“Waves” is bookended by two shots of a young teenage girl — Tyler’s sister Emily (Taylor Russell) — riding a bicycle. Her heavy breathing sets both the tone and the pace for everything that happens to her family in between.

At times, the camera spins with urgency, adding layers of excitement and dread as characters sometimes desperately try to keep their balance. For Demie, the movie shows how family can help people get back on their feet, something that resonates with her off screen.

Alexa Demie, left, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a scene from "Waves."
Alexa Demie, left, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in a scene from "Waves."A24

“In the movie, my character’s family is very supportive,” she said. “And in real life, my family is also very supportive. No matter what decisions we make, my family has always been there for each other.”

Demie says that she grew up close to her mother, who was born in Mexico, and her mother’s family. They greatly influenced and nurtured her identity as a Latina, but Demie said that sadly she cannot identify with many of the characters represented in movies and on TV today.

“I think it’s really unfortunate the way that Hollywood still looks at Latin roles,” she told NBC News. “I think that they’re still written very, very, very cliché.”

And in part, this makes her appreciate the characters in “Waves” even more, because she says that they don’t look at race directly, but focus on the person.

“On the surface, ‘Waves’ is a story about a black family,” Demie told NBC News. “But deep down inside the film has a message that’s aimed at overall humanity. Underneath our skin, we are all the same. We all have a heart. We all want to be loved. We all want to give love. That’s our humanity. And everyone can connect with that.”

Demie — who looks up to the 1940s Mexican actress María Félix and the Oscar-winning Spanish actress Penélope Cruz — is hoping to push past outdated roles that typecast Latinas and someday play more complex characters — including a mob boss, or an assassin.

“Waves” is now in select theaters in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities. It opens nationwide on Dec. 6.

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