There are imprints of ’80s classics all over Low Tide, the debut film from writer and director Kevin McMullin: the friend group at the center of Low Tide brings to mind The Outsiders; the hidden treasure is a nod to The Goonies. And there’s something more darkly sinister at play here, too, questions about the disappearance of working-class life and living in the shadow of wealth, like those posed by Jeff Nichols’s Mud. You know in Mud, when Ray McKinnon’s character tells his son of their home on the river, outside of town, “This way of life isn’t long for this world”? That mixture of resentment and wistfulness runs throughout Low Tide, too.
From the beginning, the vibe of Low Tide familiar but not unwelcome. We’re inserted into the story in the middle of a crime: A trio of boys barely old enough to grow stubble, pulling hoodies over their hair and bandanas over their faces, slowly idle a boat up to a dock in front of a great big house. It isn’t very hard to break in—quite easy, actually, and even easier to walk through the home, filling their pockets and bags with things that aren’t theirs. Prescription drugs. Jewelry of all kinds, gold and pearls and jewels. Bottles of booze. Loose cash. And although they’re not sophisticated enough to have worked out an escape strategy for when the homeowners unexpectedly return, they’d rather jump out of second-story windows than get caught.
This is the summer plan for Alan (Keean Johnson), Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri), and Red (Alex Neustaedter), locals of a New Jersey boardwalk town, the kind of place that lives and dies by its tourism revenue. The teens know it, and they’re tired: Tired of the smallness of their home, tired of the elitism of the wealthier people who can come and go as they please, tired of feeling trapped and broke and angry. So why not break into a few houses, and steal a few things, and use the money for themselves? What’s the harm?
Each of the boys has different motivations, and Low Tide lays them all out effectively: Red is the wild card, the boy most like an extra from West Side Story or the switchblade-wielding Two-Bit from The Outsiders, the son of a local developer who knows that his father’s money protects him from the police. Sgt. Kent (Shea Whigham!) has his eye out for Red, but he can’t do much when the boy’s status in the small town elevates him above so many others. And because of Red’s prestigious family, Smitty is always idling up to him, always angling to be his No. 2, always ready to report something he saw or heard to Red—even if that means putting him at odds with Alan, the third member of the crew.
Alan is the dreamer, the romantic, the kid who thinks a shiny muscle car and a new Henley shirt and a few dollars in his pocket can make his entire life better. He knows the future that awaits him—work on fishing boats that take him away from home for months at a time, the same as his father—and he wants to avoid it for as long as possible. And Alan’s responsibility to his younger brother Peter (Jaeden Martell) means he can’t be as reckless as Red or as duplicitous as Smitty: His loyalty to Peter is primary. But that doesn’t mean Alan doesn’t dream, or desire—especially not when Mary (Kristine Froseth), a pretty girl from out of town who actually gives him the time of day, wanders into his life.
There are contention and combativeness here, ratcheted up when a gun, a bag of gold coins, and a left-behind shoe at a crime scene enter into play. McMullin paces the film just right, introducing each new element in a way so that the reverberations matter and so the story intentionally shifts, giving each character the limelight for a little while. And the movie also never forgets that these boys are just teenagers struggling in a small town, letting the production design punctuate that with regular visits to a Stewart’s Root Beer, with the one-room design of the police station, with the sagging piers. Again, The Outsiders influence is strong here.
The narrative is refreshingly small-scale, and it helps that the cast is uniformly great. Zolghadri, who was so skeevy and threatening in Eighth Grade, brings welcome menace to his role as the put-upon sidekick. Neustaedter, who was also very good in the Sienna Miller vehicle American Woman this year, perfectly captures the haughtiness of a boy sure of his own attractiveness and capacity for violence; a wink he throws at Peter before winning a carnival game hints at years of summers spent doing the exact same things every day until they slowly started to drive him a little bit insane. Johnson wasn’t believable as a romantic lead in Alita: Battle Angel, but he is wonderful here, just a little bit wounded, a little bit gentle, and a little bit naïve. And Martell is truly fantastic: The kid knows how to weaponize his prep-school looks (remember The Book of Henry?) and upend our expectations of what a boy who looks like that would be capable of, and the film’s entire third act works because of the steely glimmer he brings to the character.
“This is your origin story. Are you going to grow up to be the good guy, or the bad guy?” Sgt. Kent asks the boys, and the appeal of Low Tide is in how it considers that question from a variety of perspectives: From the boys as a group, who are convinced that they’ve been wronged by outsiders, to the boys as individuals, who realize that they’ve actually been wronged by each other. “You’ll change fast, wake up a different person. One day I won’t even recognize you,” Alan says to Peter, and it’s impressive how Low Tide makes its own statement about the soul-decaying potential of one decision while simultaneously paying homage to the coming-of-age stories that obviously shaped it. Catch this one if you can.
Low Tide opens in limited release around the U.S. on Oct. 4 and is available OnDemand.
Image sources (in order of posting): A24, A24, A24