“She’s a countdown girl,” says a troubled teen named Red, “the closer she gets, the farther she gets from a 10.” It’s a crude judgment, though not an unexpected one from a group of boys watching women walk by on the pier. It’s also how “Low Tide” works. “Goonies” meets “The Lost Boys” is an attractive selling point, with a setting to fulfill its charming premise. But the more the plot moves on, the more the wrinkles in the script become apparent.
The movie itself certainly passes the look test. The time is the 1980s. The place is Jersey Shore. And the characters, a gang of wanna-be James Deans, are as cool as the blue seas at their backdrop. First-time filmmaker Kevin McMullin shoots his hometown the way he remembers it, not the way it is today, which is fine. Considering the way memories tend to romanticize places, it’s a treat to explore the terrain that is McMullin’s mind. His world is ripe for exploring. Rotting ships, eroding homes, squawking Seagulls and fresh ocean breezes give the postcard town its homey feel.
The catch is that the gang robs homes. Why? Maybe it’s because they have nothing else to do. Or, maybe it’s because they’re fed up with the “Benny’s” (slang for tourists) strutting around like they own the place. Either way, it’s bound to get them into trouble sooner or later. And it does. After the slovenly sheriff (Shea Whigman) gives the boys a swift warning, the peacemaker in the group, Alan (Keean Johnson), suggests they lay low. For awhile, troublemaker Red (Alex Neustaedter) and the clumsy Smitty (Daniel Zolghardi) are on board. Smitty broke his foot on the last job. Red is too busy causing problems elsewhere. And Alan is making nice with the visiting Mary, who’s washed up on shore from Connecticut. You can’t blame him. She’s played by Kristine Froseth, and you’ll need a map just to get out of her eyes.
Still, one day Red suggests, “Let’s rob one last house!” (guess how that turns out). This time they take along Alan’s younger brother, Peter (Jaeden Martell), with the hopes to make up for an injured Smitty. Surprise, surprise: Alan, cloaked in his symbolic green hoodie (Robin Hood), strikes literal gold. He and his brother hide it across the bay; not before the cops catch on to the small-time crooks.
The greatest treasure in “The Goonies” was getting to watch the characters have fun. No such pleasure–or fun– exists here. No one is particularly likable. As the tides of stability slowly wade back out to sea, it’s easy to see just how shallow–and shallowly written– these four really are. By trading “Goonies never say die!” for a group that turns on each other at every possible turn, McMullin is content by giving audiences another money-doesn’t-buy-happiness message. While that is a message America needs, it comes at the expense of a good time. And at the expense of characters worth rooting for.
That isn’t to say there aren’t connections to be made. Anyone with a mutual love for their siblings can admire Alan and Peter’s journey toward understanding. At the start of the film they couldn’t be any different. Alan is as hard as rocks; with a bronze tan and a sexy reserve, it’s no wonder he’s so good with the ladies. Peter, on the other hand, is as scrawny as he is nerdy. Yet, the two find in each other what we find in them: someone worth taking a chance on.
A24 is a production company that takes risks on movies that take risks. Why, then, invest in this risk-less endeavor? Despite a script that’s as obvious as a treasure map, “Low Tide” works because of its leads. The four actors have never been better. The future also seems bright for McMullin, as long as he can lighten up a little. His debut may not be a 10, but whoever said no to a 6? Even fools gold can shine under the right circumstances. [C]