Low Tide Review: Paranoia over buried treasure leads to a unique, slick, and thrilling film
Delivering some of the best performances, characters, and thrills that I’ve seen this year, A24’s Low Tide also brings one of the strongest feature debuts of the year from writer/director Kevin McMullin.
The film follows a group of friends as they spend their summers on the Jersey Shore raiding the beach houses of tourists to fund their troublemaking and dates on the boardwalk. However, when they hear the news of a wealthy man being dead and his house being isolated just off the shore, they decide to see what they can grab. The groups tight dynamic starts to falter, though, when brothers Alan (Keean Johnson) and Peter (Jaeden Martell) discovers a bag of gold coins under the floorboards and decide not to tell the other two, Red (Alex Neustaedter) and Smitty (Daniel Zolghardri). With Red’s violent personality starting to show as paranoia sets in after a determined cop (Shea Whigham) puts a looming sense of fear and doubt into the group, Alan and Peter must find a way to keep the gold a secret before things take a dark turn.
Right from the start, I was immediately hooked on the group and their stories as McMullin does a great job finding ways to build characters and the environment more subtly. Having been around the block throughout different parts of the Jersey Shore, cinematographer Andrew Ellmaker and McMullin capture in a whole new light and from a whole new perspective. There’s a line said in the movie along the lines of “it must be weird living where people come to vacation,” and McMullin utilizes this perspective well to create viewpoint into the group’s mindset. From how they call all tourists “Bennys” to how they have a firm grasp on the local area, there’re constant insights into how the environment has impacted them. Admittedly, because of how familiar the area is to me, I could obviously tell that McCullin was definitely condensing the entirety of the Jersey Shore and not specifically naming exactly where they were.
Outside of the environment, what makes the group so compelling is the underly coming of age themes that stem from the boy’s masculinity and growing up that Alan and Peter have as paranoia divides the group. In a conversation that Alan has with Whigham’s Sergeant Kent, there’s an interesting thought that Kent puts into Alan’s head about choosing to be good or bad. The film really is about Alan and Peter’s realization about what it takes to be a man and losing their immature mentality. When we’re initially introduced to the group, they are sort of your typical hyper-masculine boys with no parental guidance – they gawk at girls on the boardwalk, ride of the line of making gay jokes at one another, and constantly assert physical dominance – especially Red. Even the way they view drinking alcohol and smoking cigars embodies what being masculine and adult are to them. To them this is growing up and being mature, when in actuality it’s not and as Kent says to Allen – this is a part of growing up that he and Peter will eventually have to lose, or they’ll essentially end up being as misguided and hostile as Red.
All of this is what makes Alan and Peter’s story and Johnson and Martell’s respective performances so strong. There’s a great arc for Peter as we initially find him watching more “masculine” cartoons, like Popeye, and aspiring to escape his scrawny and timid demeanor to be more like Alan and his friends. However, after he sees how Alan struggles to stand up for himself when Smitty and Red pressure him, he figures out his own sense of masculinity and encourages Alan to stand up against Red. All of this culminates in the nail biting finale that highlights the films themes of what it means to be a man and gives Alan and Peter touching moments of endearment as they It’s a great performance from Martell and Johnson puts in an incredibly strong leading performance that definitely makes him a name to watch.
Now, while Alan and Peter are given great character writing because of how much you connect with them and like them, Red and Smitty are the opposite. Not in the sense that they are poorly written, but that they are so greatly written and acted that you absolutely despise them. Red is perfectly psychotic and is a great foil to Alan and Peter. Neustaedter is an absolutely terrifying force throughout the entire film and it feels as if you are just waiting for him to snap. Everyone, even Kent, is a little afraid of him and it makes him such an interesting villain with an inner intelligence that makes him a daunting foe. The strongest and most surprising performance definitely comes from Zolghardri as he creates a mental foe that viewers will legitimately grow to despise. The way he brings Smitty’s disloyal and downright rotten personality out is perfect as there’re likable parts to him at first. However, there’s an excellent turn that Smitty makes with him making a discovery that lets his true colors show and I can’t think of a turn that was more compelling to me this year.
As intriguing as Low Tide is, it is equally thrilling with how McMullin sprinkles clues and hints of things to come that make each reveal hit hard. I constantly found myself getting hooked on the snappy noir dialogue between everyone and the ways that twists and turns would make such a deep impact made me more and more excited to see how things would unfold. Not to mention, the finale definitely leaves you on the edge of your seat and I actually appreciated how McMullin leaves things open as well as something to think about with where the film leaves Peter and Alan. Not to mention, the score that comes from Brooke and Will Blair gives the film a slick and thrilling noir vibe that I absolutely loved.
Low Tide is easily one of my surprise favorites of the year and strong showing of incredible young talent along with a stellar writing/directing debut for McMullin. A24 has had hit after hit in 2019 and this film no exception. If you’re a fan of nail-biting thrills, unique coming of age story beats, and great performances from rising talent, then Low Tide is an absolute must-see.