In 'Waves,' Kelvin Harrison Jr. captures nuances of black boyhood

"I wasn't interested in trying to protect the image of this boy; I was interested in showing both the good and the bad," Harrison Jr. said of his character.
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 / via AP

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By Gwen Aviles

Kelvin Harrison Jr. wasn't daunted when he saw the script for "Waves," even though his character's actions have far-reaching and painful consequences for two families and a South Florida community.

"I never trusted a director so much," Harrison said of Trey Edward Shults, the director, writer and a producer of the A24 film. "It's a film about not being defined by our mistakes. It shows how our history and circumstances can break us down and how they can lead us to do deplorable things."

In "Waves," Harrison plays Tyler Williams, a popular high school senior who is consistently pushed to excel by his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown).

"We are not afford the luxury of being average," Ronald instructs Tyler.

After Tyler experiences a career-ending wrestling injury, the circumstances in his life begin to spin out of control and an act of violence threatens to pull his family apart.

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Even though Harrison said it was "a challenge to humanize Tyler," he said he brought real-life elements from his own family and friendships to the role in an attempt to capture the character's nuances.

"My cousin came from a broken home and dealt with substance abuse, threatened his family and did some awful things, but he was a beautiful boy, really unique and special," Harrison told NBC News. "He took his life, and the pain that he experienced was integral to my portrayal of Tyler."

Part of humanizing Tyler involved being honest about the character's downfalls. But Harrison was also concerned about not feeding into stereotypes about young black men while doing so.

"I wasn't interested in trying to protect the image of this boy; I was interested in showing both the good and the bad. None of us are saints, nor are we sinners," Harrison said. "We need to understand how he got there and the projections we placed upon him."

According to Harrison, "Waves" presents a much needed opportunity to "slow down" and reflect on the impact we have on one another's lives.

"Tyler felt he had no one to turn to. If we unpack the psychology, he's hurting, scared. He just kept moving and no one told him 'slow down, talk to me,'" Harrison said. "'Waves' is a reminder about how we contribute to a person's life, whether it be consciously or unconsciously. It's about forgiveness, community and makes us ask the question: How am I complicit in perpetuating fear in my life, in my community, my home?"

Harrison said that while filming, he was inspired to check in with his own family about their relationships.

"'Waves' is a cautionary tale in a lot of ways. The world is chaotic right now," Harrison said. "What matters most is family, the community in our own homes. We need to ground ourselves in the present for a better tomorrow."

"Waves" premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August. It was released in New York City and Los Angels on Nov. 15 and will be released nationwide on Dec. 6.