Few living novelists have been adapted as frequently as Stephen King, and yet, you can count on one hand the number of truly great movies to have come from that endeavor. That’s why I’m more keen on a new genre of projects that distill the essence of what King does best — retro tales of small-town New England characters faced with dangerous situations and the even more threatening local nutjobs, à la “Stranger Things” — than I am to catch “In the Tall Grass” or the upcoming “Doctor Sleep.”
My favorite King movie has long been “Stand by Me,” and I’d wager that’s one of the key influences writer-director Kevin McMullin had in mind with “Low Tide,” a tense but never-too-extreme coming-of-age thriller in which a group of adolescent townies stumble upon a treasure that brings out the worst in them. There’s also a fair amount of “The Lost Boys” and “Goonies” in this teenage “Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” although first-time helmer McMullin is especially good at channeling the King vibe. The lead actor is none other than “It” star Jaeden Martell (billed here as Jaeden Lieberher), who plays Peter, the cautious kid brother to Alan (Keean Johnson), a handsome scoundrel who drinks beer, smokes pot and gets a renegade kick out of breaking into the vacation homes of stuck-up Bennys (an acronym for those visiting from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark or New York).
Like last year’s “Hot Summer Nights,” “Low Tide” captures as only someone who has lived it can the restless ennui of muggy summer nights in a dead-end East Coast community — a sense of cooped-up boredom that can easily lead to trouble. Sandy Point, N.J., is the kind of place where well-to-do out-of-towners flock on their time off, but which the less affluent permanent residents will do anything to escape. While class differences are acutely felt (particularly by the near absence of these kids’ blue-collar parents), Alan keeps his resentment mostly in check, whereas his menacing best friend Red (Alex Neustaedter) has a real temper problem, whipping out his switchblade just to watch a Benny squirm.
When it comes to looting houses, Alan and Red have a rule: no locals. But they can’t resist the temptation to row out to Sandy Point’s peninsula and raid the home of millionaire hermit Xavier Meyer after reading his obituary. Beneath the floorboards of his creepy cabin they find a sack of gold coins, which could transform all their fortunes, if they were somehow capable of discreetly fencing them and evenly dividing the cash. Instead, greed and opportunism get the better of them, leading to a twisty series of bad decisions in which audiences (especially those around the characters’ ages) will have fun imagining how they’d handle each new moral quandary.
Johnson and Neustaedter look a little old for their respective roles, but they play their parts convincingly, tapping into the insecurities these two small-pond tuna do their best to hide — as when they sit on the boardwalk, catcalling girls who wouldn’t give them the time of day. Alan develops a crush on one such visitor (Kristine Froseth), complicating things when Red starts to play power games, and here the film’s otherwise plausible psychology starts to fray. As in a juicy Stephen King story, the personalities are exaggerated just enough that they get under our skin without spiraling off into caricature. Each of the boys is in some way guilty, but only one seems genuinely irredeemable, which creates far more suspense than the jaded local cop (Shea Whigham) slowly closing in on their scheme.
One of those A24 productions released exclusively to DirecTV a few weeks before getting a tiny theatrical run, “Low Tide” deserves better than this shallow treatment, although it’s unlikely that such a solid, character-driven vessel could attract today’s fickle crowds without bigger names on board. Still, in addition to establishing a tangible sense of place, McMullin impresses by putting together such a strong ensemble (including comic relief Daniel Zolghadri) and eliciting from them the performances he does. He’s a very visual director, jump-starting scenes with an unexpected extreme close-up of some kind before allowing audiences to get their bearings — a strategy that subconsciously reinforces the notion that we can never get too comfortable in this otherwise familiar genre.