It can be hard to recognize when a life-defining moment falls into your lap, especially when you’re still just a scrawny teenager who feels like he’s watching the world go by from the sidelines. As desperate as we are to grow up, people seldom clock the moment they start coming of age. Peter (Jaeden Martell) doesn’t have that problem. When this frustrated kid stumbles upon a bag full of $100,000 in buried treasure, he can practically hear the starting gun ringing in his ears.
Growing up on the Jersey Shore, Peter and his better-developed older brother Alan (“Alita” hunk Keean Johnson) haven’t really been able to appreciate the romantic allure that brings wealthy tourists to their blue-collar hometown. But a small fortune in gold coins has a way of altering your perspective in a hurry. This will be their one magic summer. This will be the year when everything changed. This will be the season when these two boys decide what kind of men they want to be. “This is your origin story,” Sergeant Kent (Shea Whigam) tells Alan, unaware that the juvenile delinquent sitting across from him is hiding a huge secret. “Are you going to grow up to be the good guy, or the bad guy?”
A sharp coming-of-age crime saga that hardens “The Goonies” with the kind of salt-of-the-earth survivalism that bled through “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” Kevin McMullin’s Amblin-inflected “Low Tide” couldn’t make its stakes any clearer. The movie’s shrewd first scene, in which a group of masked ruffians break into a beachside mansion, explicitly defines the moral dilemma that will hang over the rest of this 87-minute calling card. It’s just another summer night for Alan, Red (a volatile Alex Neustaedter), and Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri), who rob houses because it’s easier than working. Besides, it’s not like the loaded out-of-towners are going to miss any of this shit, right?
But panic ensues when the house owners come home early; two of the boys make clean escapes, but Smitty breaks his ankle when he tries to jump down from the second floor. His accomplices eventually go back for him, but it’s hard to say if they rescue Smitty out of friendship, or rather because they don’t trust him not to rat them out to the cops. Later, when Sergeant Kent tells Alan that “bad guys never think they’re bad guys,” you can all but see the kid replaying this incident in his mind.
“Low Tide” is at its best during these early stretches, as McMullin’s script charts the ways that fragile young friendships can ebb and flow. The movie’s setting isn’t quite as specific as its circumstances — it’s tough to shoot a period piece on an indie budget — but McMullin turns that feature into a bug. Our past seems like the movie’s present. Details come into focus slowly, and without calling attention to themselves. A transistor radio and a boxy television are the first clues that we’re back in time; the fashion and haircuts don’t shout at us, but a preppie from out of town poses himself against the hood of his (dad’s) Mustang convertible in a way that feels like he’s trying to cosplay “Risky Business.” The lighting is soft and sweet like a memory, and the horny teen hot spot relocates from the hot dog stand to the fairgrounds when the sun goes down.
The boys hang out on the boardwalk and gawk at the girls who walk by. Alan isn’t as level-headed as his younger brother, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. Red is the pistol-packing id of the group, though his violent streak isn’t well-shaded enough for him to become a convincing villain. Smitty is somewhere in the middle, a Spanish-speaking immigrant who fell in with the biggest outsiders he could find. It would all feel like a Bruce Springsteen song if Alan believed in that stuff (“Miracles don’t happen in New Jersey,” he teaches Peter), especially once he starts making eyes at Mary (Kristine Froseth), a golden-haired Connecticut girl who’s on her way to college. The writing is never as rich as when Peter suddenly becomes when he stumbles upon that loot — the circumstances behind that discovery are too simple to seem real, and too complicated to sustain much interest — but you understand where these kids are in their lives. And how fast it could all change on them.
Peter becomes the protagonist once he strikes it rich, and Martell (so good as a wannabe Ben Shapiro in “Knives Out”) perfectly manages to evoke the trembling insecurity of a little kid on the precipice of a big moment. He only tells Alan about the gold, but Alan — who buys himself a sweet car — effectively tells everyone else. Everything falls apart from there, only some of it by design.
McMullin, so eager to carve out a spare thriller that he leaves a ton of meat on the table, eats up the middle of the movie by focusing on the logistics of it all instead of the emotional machinations behind them. The second act drifts somewhat aimlessly between the inciting discovery and the inevitable fight to keep it safe, as Alan’s posse grows suspicious and everyone turns against each other. Sergeant Kent isn’t given the time to emerge as a proper father figure in a town full of absent men, Alan’s crush on Mary doesn’t go much deeper than a rainy makeout session in the backseat of his car, and the dynamic between Red, Smitty, and the rest is never developed beyond the mistrust that was always growing like a weed around its roots.
These boys have been raised to believe that no one in this life would ever give them anything, and so they feel as if they have no choice but to take it for themselves. They have a code (“no stealing from locals”), but the desperation that’s lurking just under the surface is laid bare during low tide. A very promising debut that’s lensed with confidence even when it lacks a more cohesive vision, the film may not quite hold together as a crime story, but McMullin — a New Jersey native — is better at tracing his own emotional turmoil than he is at following in John Huston’s footsteps. If “Low Tide” recedes all too fast, it still leaves behind a clear sense that life doesn’t always happen on schedule, and that the hardest part of growing up is figuring out what to share with people along the way.
“Low Tide” is now available on DirecTV Cinema. A24 will release it in select theaters on Friday, October 4.