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In Taut Heist Film 'Low Tide,' Teens Find Treasure, Things Go Wrong

For the teenage burglars in Low Tide, a taut indie thriller composed of spare parts, robbing houses along the Jersey Shore is as much an act of class resentment as it is a bid for extra cash. Summer after summer, these townies are reminded how the other half lives, as the like-aged children of wealthy families cruise the streets in luxury cars, throw their money around for a few months, and return to the college prep courses. Meanwhile, these Jersey boys scrape together a living off odd jobs and nurse ambitions that don't travel much further than the docks. And in the short term, that gives them a marked disadvantage with the opposite sex.

The relationship between townies and seasonal tourists gives meaningful context to writer-director Kevin McMullin's debut feature, which is otherwise a meat-and-potatoes crime story that's been told many times before. In fact, McMullin seems to know he's in familiar territory because the riches at stake come in the form of gold coins, which many fictional scoundrels have plundered over many different eras. At bottom, his modern-day treasure hunt comes down to the same forms of greed, treachery, and violence that usually upend heists, only here with a distinctive change of scenery.

The timelessness of the premise seems to liberate McMullin to be cagey about when Low Tide actually takes place, though the teenagers look and act like the misfits and greasers from Stephen King stories like "Stand By Me" or It. In the opening sequence, Alan (Keean Johnson), Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri), and Red (Alex Neustaedter) pull off the latest in what seems like a long line of house robberies, which they limit strictly to rich visitors. When Smitty breaks an ankle and loses a shoe while escaping, that sets up a convenient Cinderella scenario for the local police sergeant (a reliably excellent Shea Whigham) to turn the screws on them.

With summer's end approaching, the boys eye a huge score when a miserly local dies, presumably leaving a fortune somewhere on the isolated peninsula where he lived. The three boys recruit Alan's younger brother Peter (Jaeden Martell, of It and the upcoming Knives Out) to serve as lookout, but when the siblings discover a bag of gold coins, they decide to keep that secret for themselves. Their plan to threatens to unravel when Alan starts spending to impress a pretty out-of-towner (Kristine Froseth), but the bigger problem is Red, whose gun-slinging volatility keeps them all on edge.

At under 90 minutes, Low Tide wins on efficiency alone, wasting no time in seeding the twists and turns that will pay off handsomely down the line. McMullin could have done more to evoke his Jersey Shore setting or develop Alan's romantic interest without leaning on star-crossed clichés, but he makes up in tension and pace what he misses in local color and richer character detail. He does insist on hitting the class struggle theme throughout, however, like having Peter earn an honest buck as a dockside fishmonger or having the sergeant's own delinquent past color his understanding of the boys he's pursuing.

The list of possible influences on Low Tide is long — the children of Stand By Me and Mud meet the desperate thievery of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and A Simple Plan, basically — and McMullin doesn't do enough to put daylight between his film and others of its kind. Yet if there's one genre that makes a virtue out of well-executed scheme, it's the heist picture, which is all about admiring the satisfying machinations of the job. He may be short in ambition, but McMullin has enough skill to make it look easier than it is.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.