The key is even lower than the tide in Italian-born, Texas-adopted director Roberto Minervini's sophomore feature, a solemn small-town miniature that offers effectively woozy atmospherics, but is found dramatically wanting even on its own modest terms.

The key is even lower than the tide in Italian-born, Texas-adopted director Roberto Minervini’s sophomore feature, a solemn small-town miniature that offers effectively woozy atmospherics, but is found dramatically wanting even on its own modest terms. A laconic, downbeat portrait of a sorely neglected white-trash adolescent left to his own devices over a scorching Lone Star summer, the pic would make a stylish calling-card short but proves grimly repetitive stretched to feature length. A sharp sense of craft and subtle social realism should secure festival berths beyond the Lido, but “Low Tide” looks less certain to wash up in theaters.

Minervini’s nonconfrontational, documentary-inspired approach bears the apparent influence of Bill Douglas, early David Gordon Green and even Francois Truffaut; the film’s closing shot seems a direct homage to the finale of “The 400 Blows,” albeit with a more sentimental undertow. The nameless protag’s nature-boy inclinations also make Ken Loach’s “Kes” a pertinent reference point for this study in youthful resilience, even if his taste in fauna runs more scaly than feathered.

Played with flint-eyed conviction by Daniel Blanchard, who heads a wholly non-pro cast, the tow-headed lad is introduced — in a sequence that will fray the nerves of any ophidiophobes in the audience — fondling a sizable grass snake on one of his afternoon wanderings around the outskirts and trailer parks of Glumsville, U.S.A. There will be more of these images. Fifteen minutes of screen time pass before he’s granted a polysyllabic line; shortly afterward, the first words uttered onscreen by his deadbeat mother (Melissa McKinney) are, “Get me a beer.”

So the scene is set for this unhappy household of two. The boy helps out with his mother’s low-paying job as a nursing-home orderly, but otherwise takes the parental role: cooking, doing laundry and tucking Mom in when she passes out in the nude after a hard night’s drinking. It would appear this is a regular occurrence: The film’s most disconcerting sequence finds the boy waking up to a find a boozy gang-bang under way in his own living room. Suitably evocative but long even at 92 minutes, the film wallows a little in such daily drudgery — there’s a trip to the abattoir for good measure — before an act of desperation on the child’s part ushers in a questionable note of redemption.

Tech credits all serve the overriding spirit of sober but sun-struck authenticity, though dialogue audibility is perhaps intentionally muddy here and there. Most impressive is the largely handheld lensing by Diego Romero, whose palette of dusty browns and bleached yellows lends the locale the necessary parched quality, while steering appropriately clear of sepia romanticism.

Low Tide

U.S.-Italy-Belgium

Production

A Pulpa, Ondarossa Film, Poliana Prods. presentation, in association with the Houston Film Commission, Austin Film Society. (International sales: Doc & Film Intl., Paris.) Produced by Denise Lee, Joao Leite, Luigina Smerilli. Directed, written by Roberto Minervini.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Diego Romero; editor, Marie-Helene Dozo; music supervisors, Jeff Kelly, Jose Villalobos; sound, Julian McKenna; re-recording mixer, Thomas Gauder; second unit camera, Robert Hastings. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Sept. 1, 2012. Running time: 92 MIN.

With

Daniel Blanchard, Melissa McKinney, Vernon Wilbanks.

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