Low Tide is a retro summertime thriller that hearkens back to the classic teen adventures of the eighties. The film is akin to a sinister version of The Goonies, darker in content and sublimely atmospheric. Director/writer Kevin McMullin keeps your attention rapt while building slow burn tension. His feature debut thoughtfully explores the characters, but veers into contrivance with a predictable third act. Low Tide needed a more complex ending to match its strong beginning.
Low Tide takes place on the boardwalks and barrier islands of the New Jersey shore. The time period is never specified, but you can deduce a past setting by the clothes, cars, and technology. A trio of local high schoolers rob the vacation homes of tourists. Alan (Keean Johnson) is good-natured and kind with serious doubts about their nightly excursions. He and the sycophantic Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri) blindly follow the lead of Red (Alex Neustaedter); a violent thug from a rich family.
The fallout from a failed robbery forces Alan to take his younger brother, Peter (Jaeden Martell), on the next job. The siblings discover a significant treasure, but are forced to split up when interrupted by the local sheriff (Shea Whigham). Red has no knowledge of the windfall, but becomes suspicious when Alan romances a girl (Kristine Froseth) from out of town. He terrorizes his friends when the true value of the heist is revealed.
The strongest aspect of Low Tide is the mood. Kevin McMullin paints a somber and menacing picture of impending trouble. Red is established early as a character to be feared. The boys know what he's capable of and are constantly wary. This fraught dynamic is compounded by the bleak cinematography. Everything looks overcast and dreary. Colors are muted. I don't think there's a shot of the sun in the entire film. The pieces are adroitly put together.
Low Tide has you on edge until the climax, which is sort of a letdown. The finale feels blasé after the patient simmering. Kevin McMullin loses steam in his script. He closes the narrative too quickly. The audience is left to infer the outcome. I think an opportunity was lost to really grind down on the repercussions of their actions. There is too much left unsaid with the characters.
Jaeden Martell, who previously used the surname Lieberher, delivers a standout performance. He plays Peter as intelligent and cautious, the wiser brother. His character understands the treasure will bring danger. Martell uses his eyes to convey meaning. He's emotive without dialogue or unnecessary movement. This is a significant skill for such a young actor. Jaeden Martell's career is on a role. He also starred in The Book of Henry, the blockbuster It adaptations, and the forthcoming Knives Out.
Low Tide is a small film, but quite engrossing. The acting and filmmaking make up for the lackluster ending. Kevin McMullin shows real talent in his first foray as a feature director. I'd love to see what he can do with a bigger budget. Low Tide is a production of Automatik Entertainment, with theatrical distribution by A24 and on demand streaming from DirecTV.