In an age when most movies could stand to be 20 minutes shorter, there’s something almost refreshing about an 86-minute coming-of-age film that leaves you saying “Wait, that’s it?”
I know I said “leave them wanting more,” but not like this.
For much of its run time, Low Tide, from writer/director Kevin McMullin, is strongly reminiscent of Stand By Me, another period-set coming-of-age tale about beatdowns and boners, freedom and fatalism in a late adolescent Summer. That film, released in 1986 and set in 1959, starred a who’s who of Hollywood’s hottest and soon-to-be-hottest young male talent in the story of a personality-defining search for a dead body in the Maine woods.
Low Tide is set at the Jersey Shore, the summer playground of the “Bennies” (Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, New York) but home to Low Tide‘s protagonists, a gang of teenage delinquents — Alan, Smitty, Red, and Alan’s younger brother, Peter — who ogle girls on the pier, brag about probably fake sexual conquests, and break into vacant houses, all without any parents in sight. “It must be weird to live where other people vacation,” says Alan’s idealized, too-good-for-him love interest, Mary, from Connecticut.
Low Tide is specific about place but vague about time, though it seems to take place in an era before flat screens and mobile phones, when classic muscle cars were prized above all but personal styling wasn’t much different from today. Basically, it seems like it wanted to be set in the ’80s or early ’90s but didn’t want to splurge on dressing an entire location set, so we get this sort of parallel analogue quasi-present, with muscle cars in the foreground and what seem to be modern cars in the background if you squint. Which is a bit confusing for a while, if an understandable artistic compromise from a logistical standpoint. Hey, at least it’s not another bikes-and-flashlights Gooniesploitation film.
Where Stand By Me had Ray Brower’s body, Low Tide has a literal bag of gold coins — pilfered from a dead rich guy’s house on a tip from the newspaper’s obituaries. The coins become the axis around which the characters rotate.
It’s hard to capture something as iconic as Stand By Me and it’s great if you can do it right. In cinematography and acting Low Tide comes closest to matching its spiritual predecessor. Keean Johnson of Alita does a competent job playing Alan, a pier rat gradually realizing there might be more to the world, exposing hidden depths even when his face screams “Disney actor.” Daniel Zolghadri of Eighth Grade plays a deliciously detestable weasel, Smitty, Red’s toadying sidekick and a human ball of defense mechanisms and resentment. Jaeden Martell (née Lieberher) of IT is typically brilliant here, exuding a natural earnestness most actors twice his age can’t match. And Alex Neustaeder plays Red, an unpredictable hothead sociopath, looking like a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch with the personality of Joe Pesci in Casino. The always-great Shea Wigham even shows up as the town’s too-lenient-to-be-believed Sheriff.
It’s a transporting setting and the characters are compelling, if a little on-the-nose. It’s broad, but deliberately so. McMullin is clearly attempting to convey universal pop-Americana. In terms of texture and pacing, he nails it, but in terms of storytelling, if you’re going for iconic you really have to deliver. A screechy punk song can handle a few strings out of tune. This is more like a cinematic Springsteen ballad — any sour notes are going to stick out.
Characters as broad as the “Jersey Shore kid from the wrong side of the tracks” falling for the sweet, college-bound girl from Connecticut (who probably loves horses and Jesus and America like in the Tom Petty song and eventually grew up to be Taylor Swift) don’t allow for momentary confusion in their motives. Questioning them only exposes their inherent thinness, like facing a flounder head-on.
Low Tide mostly saves these flounder-facing-head-on moments for the third act, and never more so than in the ending. The best coming-of-age film endings are bittersweet, like closing the book on a certain chapter of youth. Low Tide‘s ending is not only not a resolution, it’s a whole other can of worms. If the movie at first seems intended to take place in the ’80s or ’90s, by the end it seems to take place in a parallel universe where “boys will be boys” is the only law. No Sheriffs are this nice.
Low Tide is wonderfully shot and acted, and compelling for most of its run time. It’s a shame that it goes out on its least compelling beat.