A quartet of Jersey Shore guys get into serious trouble during the 1980s in Kevin McMullin’s “Low Tide,” a slow-burning thriller that features a talented young cast but isn’t clever or thoughtful enough to surmount a fundamentally pedestrian coming-of-age plot.
The focus of the first act is on the three older teens, who are breaking into houses occupied by outsiders who come to the shore for vacations. Alan (Keean Johnson, the romantic interest Hugo in “Alita: Battle Angel”) is the straightest arrow in the bunch, persuaded into participating by Red (Alex Neustaedter, the good-guy dirtbiker of “A.X.L.,” the robot dog movie), the privileged bad-boy. Accompanying them is Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri), the scruffy kid from a poor household who’s in it for the cash and camaraderie.
When Smitty breaks his foot leaping from the second story of a house to escape when the owners get back, Red insists that Alan recruit his brainy, goody-two-shoes brother Peter (Jaeden Martell, the boy whose loss of his little brother is the catalyst of the new version of “It”) as a substitute. Peter is reluctant, but becomes part of the crew to please his brother.
In a rare break from their usual rule about not robbing locals, the guys decide to break into the now-empty place left behind by a reclusive sea captain, and Alan and Peter discover, hidden away under some floorboards, a bag of real loot—gold coins that the local pawnbroker (Mike Hodge, the late actor to whom the film has been dedicated) values at a thousand dollars apiece. The brothers are in no mood to share the find, and instead bury the bag in a nearby forest. But all is not well, because a local cop (Shea Wigham) connects hobbling Smitty to the recent string of robberies and puts pressure on the terrified kid to rat out his comrades.
Alan gets into trouble, too—not just by spending lavishly on a used car despite Peter’s warnings that any such conduct would spark suspicion from Red and Smitty, but because his incipient romance with Mary (Kristine Froseth, recently seen in “Prey”) leads a suspicious Red to demand that all the gang participate in “one last job”—which turns out, of course, to be of her house. That results not only in their breakup, but Alan getting busted by the cops as well.
The outcome of everything, naturally enough, is the complete unraveling of any trust among the guys, all of whom end up scrambling to save themselves and trying to profit from what they’ve done. Adam and Peter, of course, will be the special targets of Red’s ire, in a penultimate sequence that explains the picture’s title and an ending that exudes moral ambiguity.
The young actors give convincing enough performances, and though McMullin’s direction can tend toward the sluggish, he and editor Ed Yonaitis manage to keep the shifting emotions clear. The locations are decently used by cinematographer Andrew Ellmaker, and Chris Potter’s production design is workmanlike.
And yet in the end “Low Tide” has a familiar, rather tired feel–a throwback to the “kiddie noir” pictures that members of the so-called “brat pack” made back in the day. It might be thought of as a companion piece to “Hot Summer Nights,” the early Timothée Chalamet movie that A24 unearthed last year, in which he played a kid caught up in a drug-distribution ring on the Jersey Shore. It too was a downbeat coming-of-age tale (also a period one, set in the 1991), and it too wasn’t particularly good. As for this low-energy piece, one can safely let it ebb away unseen.