It’s one thing to feel like a tourist in a part of the world you have no right to call your true home. But it’s another thing completely to try to fit in with a rough, hard-edged crowd that can see right through you. Writer-director Kevin McMullin explores the juxtaposition of being both a physical and emotional tourist in his first full-length feature film, “Low Tide,” in theaters this weekend.
The film follows a gang of three teens, Alan (Keean Johnson), Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri) and their hot-tempered leader Red (Alex Neustaedter) as they break into the summer houses of wealthy tourists who have second homes on their blue-collar New Jersey shore town. Once Smitty breaks his leg leaving a job, the gang is left without a third man as a lookout and need to enlist Alan’s brother Peter (Jaeden Martell, from “It”) to come along for their next heist. That score is the rumored buried gold left unclaimed by a recently deceased old man who had lived out on one of the town’s remote islands. Once this treasure comes into play, their close-knit dynamic begins to fracture like caked mud underneath their boots.
When I spoke with McMullin over the phone, I asked if he had a similar upbringing as the gang in the film or if he was considered what they would call a “BENNY” — someone from Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark and New York.
“I was a little of both, actually,” says McMullin, who spent much of his formative years in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., where the majority of the movie was filmed. “It’s middle-class with a lot of blue-collar folks who live there year-round. Then in the summer, there’s a lot of summer vacationers. I always thought that dichotomy was interesting and worth exploring. Especially through a group of local kids who, I wouldn’t say are like Robin Hood, but maraud and pillage wealthy vacation homes.”
Jaeden Martell in “Low Tide.” A24
As the kids get in a little bit too deep over their heads, they begin to brush up against the law, namely with local Sergeant Kent, played by Shea Whigham. The cast of mostly child actors completely encapsulates the paranoia and fears that McMullin hoped to convey in the film. Early on, he was thankful to cast Martell as Peter, who serves as the film’s moral center.
“One of the first phone calls I ever got was from the reps for Jaeden Martel. They said he was interested in playing Peter, who I think was originally written to be slightly younger in the script. But I knew from the get-go that this was going to be the most challenging role to cast, because it was a young actor with a severe character arc. When Jaeden’s name popped up, I recognized it immediately from ‘Midnight Special’ and ‘St. Vincent.’ When I got the opportunity to speak with him on Skype, he was the sweetest kid. Really shy, pensive and thoughtful. He understood the character, the story, and had great ideas. I thought, we are going to be so lucky to have him,” says McMullin.
At its core, “Low Tide” is a buried-treasure film. I ask McMullin if the pursuit of a chest full of gold is something that he thinks will always be a universal dream for those looking for a life-changing payday.
“My favorite thing about those narratives, and this movie, is that it’s less about the treasure,” explains McMullin. “Even though I understand the mythology and where that gold comes from and why it was found, it’s not that important emotionally. It was more fun for the audience to watch a room full of kids who found it, lie to each other.”