“As we grow up, we decide who we’re going to be. This is your origin story, are you going to be the good guy or the bad guy?” A sentiment only said in passing in Kevin McMullin’s debut feature Low Tide, but one that eventually rings through as the beating heart of his story. Reaching that pinnacle moment of teenage boyhood is Peter (a typically wonderful Jaeden Martell), the younger brother of Alan (Keean Johnson), a petty criminal dealt a harsh hand after the passing of his mother and near-enough abandonment of his father. Alan and his two friends Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri) and Red (Alex Neustaedter) spend their days robbing the holiday homes of rich people along the Jersey Shore where they live.
But as times get tougher, Red’s chokehold grip over the other boys gets stronger, and the jobs get bigger, scenes lead to Smitty breaking his ankle on one unfortunate evening. It is Peter who has sat by and watched his brother, his only male figure to look up to at this point, repeatedly return with money and goods. So, with Smitty off-duty, Peter is roped in as a look-out one night when they attempt to rob the house of an ex ship captain. It is here, in a wonderful Goonies-esque moment, that Alan and Peter discover hidden treasure. Like, the real kind. Pure. Gold. Coins.
And while the films 80s references do not go unnoticed, Low Tide remains in a timeless, transient state, undefined by a singular year that restricts the film from ever falling into an obsession with its own nostalgia − a definite trend that has been prevalent of late. McCubbin’s intentions never seem to be to remind us of a time when childhood was wholesome and free – far from it, the groups frequent run-ins with the law after the discovery of the gold coins are a persistent threat that remains absent from films like Stand By Me and co. McCubbin’s frequently drives a narrative of personal responsibility, growth and class-based prejudices that plague these young men, becoming more of a crime thriller than your typical coming of age narrative.
Red is the most worrisome of the lot, his penchant to give way to violence at the smallest inconvenience places him as a high-risk threat to both Alan and Peter when they decide to not share their treasure with him. Alex Neustaedter is admittedly great at building up his rage to the boiling point, but never spilling over, always restrained. Alan on the other hand paints a more complex picture; sensing a role of responsibility in being a role model for Peter but also knowing that the easiest way to support Peter is a life of criminality. We see Alan connect with a richer girl named Mary (Kristine Froseth) who acts as a vehicle to show off Alan’s softer side; the greatest disappointment of the film is the treatment of this singular female character who exists solely to reflect back a contrast to Alan’s ‘wrong side of the tracks’ character arc.
There’s a considerable amount of emotional struggle within the two brothers, avidly trying to avoid Red’s looming presence and Smitty’s attempts at blackmail, the film ultimately turns dark andm in its final scenes, quite brutal – far from the ‘teen boys on flashlight-lit adventure’ that the trailer depicted. Surprisingly though, this works to the films benefit, it feels mean and cold and struck by the harsh realities of growing up as a poor kid getting in with the wrong crowd and finding absolutely no way to escape a path that seems to have been confidently carved out for you. Jaeden Martell still manages to inflict the often-hopeless mood with a sense of charm and loyalty that cracks through the realistic setting to find that young 80s era boy hero that so many aspired to be.
Low Tide knows where it came from but adequately avoids succumbing to nostalgia. Instead, Kevin McMullin paints a darker portrait of the forgotten youth of the Jersey Shore that is as violent as it is strangely charming, entwining class-based struggles with a coming of age story all about the blurred lines of moral fibre.
Low Tide is out in Select Cinemas on Oct 4th
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here