Low Tide is a promising start to McMullin's career as a director, even though it plays out as a standard crime drama with a coming of age twist.
Low Tide is an intriguing piece of genre storytelling, if one that's clearly the work of a first-time filmmaker still finding their voice. Kevin McMullin (making his feature debut as a writer and director) has crafted a slow-burn thriller that's heavy on atmosphere and plays out a bit like the young adult version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (complete with the economic anxieties that fuel its protagonists). In the end, though, it's a fairly conventional and bare-bones morality tale about the cost of greed and being smart about who your friends are. Then again, by setting his sights on a lower, but more manageable target, McMullin avoids overextending himself in his first-time at bat, and manages to land a solid grounder. Low Tide is a promising start to McMullin's career as a director, even though it plays out as a standard crime drama with a coming of age twist.
The film follows four teenaged boys - Alan (Keean Johnson), Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri), Red (Alex Neustadter), and Alan's younger brother Peter (Jaeden Martell) - who live in a beach town on the New Jersey shore. With their blue-collar parents out of the picture (either off working or no longer around), Alan, Red, and Smitty spend their summer nights looting vacation homes in order to fund their day trips to a local burger stand or party at the nearby boardwalk in the evening. However, when Peter joins the three to break into an isolated log cabin whose supposedly-wealthy owner recently passed, he and Alan stumble upon a bag of gold coins in the floorboards. With the police already breathing down their necks, Alan and Peter try to keep their newfound treasure a secret - something easier said than done, especially given Red's tendency for being suspicious and otherwise volatile.
In its strongest moments, Low Tide captures the feeling of aimlessness that comes with being a teenager in the summer and having neither school nor a real job to give your life more structure. Much of the film's first half focuses on doing just that, even in the scenes where Alan and his pals are breaking and entering or cat-calling girls on the boardwalk. This is where Low Tide hints at a greater depth to its protagonists and the factors that feed into their destructive behavior, whether it's economic insecurity, toxic masculinity, or (especially in Alan's case) uncertainty about the future as they find themselves on the cusp of adulthood, trying to figure out who they're going to be. Unfortunately, the movie fails to fully pay off these threads during its second half, which shifts into being more of a straightforward cautionary thriller about the destructiveness of avarice and deception.
For the most part, though, Low Tide's young cast succeeds in making their characters feel like real people, even if the movie struggles to flesh them out beyond recognizable archetypes. Alan and Peter are ultimately the film's true leads and are capably brought to life by Johnson and Martell, with Martell in particular communicating the same sense of emotional depth that he lent to his previous roles in the comedy-drama St. Vincent and, most famously, the IT films. Zolghadri is equally amusing as the inept Smitty, and Neustadter imbues Red with a sense of menace and instability, despite Low Tide's failure to even start to explore where his violent tendencies come from. The four are nicely complimented by the ever-reliable Shea Whigham as Sergeant Kent, the local cop who tries (in vain) to put the four boys on a better path. But, sadly, Kristine Froseth (Sierra Burgess Is a Loser) gets little to do as Alan's star-crossed love interest, Mary.
More than anything, Low Tide works as a mood piece that reflects the flavor of its working-class New Jersey backdrop. Andrew Ellmaker's cinematography is appropriately stark and makes the movie's period setting (it's not specified, but Low Tide appears to take place during the final quarter of the 20th century) seem like an uninviting and dangerous place, even in the midst of summer. That noir-ish sensibility is also present in the foreboding score by Brooke and Will Blair (Green Room, Hold the Dark), which helps the film to maintain this feeling of unease, even during its quieter or more heartfelt moments. As was mentioned, McMullin shows some real potential as a director, and it's easy to imagine that, with a stronger story in hand, he could land a proper hit next time.
All in all, Low Tide makes for a respectable genre exercise and a mostly sturdy directorial debut for McMullin - no more, but no less. Perhaps unsurprisingly, A24 is passing on giving the movie an awards season push and will release it in theaters as indie counter programming to the big studio tentpoles and Oscar contenders arriving this month (following its premiere on DirectTV Cinema in September). Those who're intrigued by the trailer and premise would do well to give it a look at some point all the same, if not necessarily on the big screen. As for its director: much like Low Tide's leads, it will be interesting to see what he does from here, now that his own "origin story" is out of the way.
Low Tide is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 86 minutes long and is rated R for language, some violence, and teen drug use.
- Low Tide (2019) release date: Oct 04, 2019