Though they only wrapped up four years ago, the “Twilight” movies already seem ancient history in pop culture terms. Ditto the memory of Taylor Lautner as an Oughties It Boy, that temporary career heat cooled by a series of weak big-screen vehicles even as his co-stars were reinventing themselves with uneven but cumulative success as “serious” adult actors.
“Run the Tide” is unlikely to reverse that trend at point when Lautner has mostly retreated to TV anyway (“Scream Queens,” Brit “Cuckoo”), though the actor gives a creditable enough turn as a young man who has raised his little brother alone — then flees with the kid once their hitherto abusive, drug-addled mother exits prison to resume custody. This competently crafted but uninspired tearjerker, a feature debut for both director Soham Mehta and scenarist Rajiv Shah, is getting a limited theatrical launch Dec. 2. Yet it feels like a cable and rental time-filler, with prospects sure to be much improved in those formats.
After suffering the full brunt of single parent Lola (Constance Zimmer), and her violent and irresponsible behavior, Rey (Lautner) is determined not to let much-younger sibling Oliver (Nico Christou) risk the same kind of ruined childhood. So he puts any of his own plans on hold, sticking around to work at the local gas station/grocery store owned by mom’s ex-beau Bo (Kenny Johnson) and raises Oliver himself, even as his former classmates go on to college and bigger things. One of them — one-time g.f. Michelle (Johanna Braddy), whom he hasn’t seen in years — turns up unexpectedly. She’s graduated from Stanford and established an upwardly mobile career in San Francisco. Their dormant romance rekindles in an inebriated late-night tryst, during which she impulsively urges him to join her in San Fran.
It’s an offer he’s inclined to take seriously when he learns that Lola gets out of the state pen in just two days, after a six-year stint. What’s more, she fully intends to take charge of 10-year-old Oliver, who’s too young to recall Lola’s pre-prison destructiveness and has an idealized perception of his mom. Fearing the worst, Rey creates a feeble pretext for a road trip for the brothers from which, unknown to Oliver, he does not intend them to return.
As they drive from the desert to the Bay Area, with Lola and reluctant Bo in eventual pursuit, “Run the Tide” never becomes terribly eventful — nor does it ever rise above watchable-but-forgettable status. Road movies have sometimes gotten by on little more than the strongly felt bond between two characters who may spat, yet also always have each other’s back. Unfortunately, a major problem here is that newcomer Christou is no more appealing than what’s on the page — and since, as written, Oliver is an irritatingly precocious, potty-mouthed brat, there’s not enough rooting interest at the film’s core fraternal relationship.
Like many a good-looking young male actor, Lautner benefits from the hints of deeper character that a little aging has brought. Allowed to be scruffier (and hairier) than usual here, he immediately seems more of an actor to be reckoned with, less of a teen-mag-friendly hunk. (Some may be dismayed that he doesn’t even take his shirt off until very late in the movie, and then only in a dimly lit night-swimming sequence, leaving those famous abs in shadow.)
But the script doesn’t offer much help. Its progress affords a couple of mild reversals of expectation in the later going, yet these land with little dramatic impact; and there just isn’t much complexity built into characters who pretty much reveal all at our first encounter. Lautner’s earnest turn, as well as those of familiar TV faces Johnson (“Bates Motel,” “The Shield”) and Zimmer (“Entourage,” “UnReal”), are hamstrung by writing that demands a certain emotional urgency while providing the performers little opportunity for surprise or nuance. “Tide” is smoothly packaged in tech and design departments, but its 90-odd minutes wash over the viewer and recede without leaving a lasting impression.