THE STORY – When teenager Alan and his younger brother find a bag of gold coins in a dead man’s island home, they try to hide it from their friends — but one of them, suspicious and violently unpredictable, is willing to do anything to get the money.
THE CAST – Keean Johnson, Alex Neustaedter, Daniel Zolghadri, Kristine Froseth, Shea Whigham & Jaeden Martell
THE TEAM – Kevin McMullin (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 90 Minutes
By Josh Parham
As the marketplace becomes dominated by large scale superhero films with world-ending stakes to them, there is still a place for the smaller films that turn a keen eye to exploring smaller stories with rich characters. Often times these stories of independent means can strip away all the excess and find themselves diving deep into the personal drama which can be revealed as something quite compelling. Not all of these journeys are successful, but watching the slow downfall showcased by flawed humans can be quite fascinating. That is just the kind of story this film seeks to tell, and it often finds engaging means to tell it while also being quite flawed.
During an idle summer on the Jersey Shore, a group of young friends finds themselves occupying their time by breaking into houses and stealing the valuable contents inside. After a close call escaping one particular home, Alan (Keean Johnson) and Red (Alex Neustaetder) manage to get away clean while their friend Smitty (Daniel Zolghadri) breaks his leg. When the tip of a new job comes up, the group recruits Alan’s younger brother Peter (Jaeden Martell) to be part of the crew. While there, the brothers discover a hidden stash of ancient treasure. From there, a nasty web of lies, scheming, and backstabbing takes hold of the group, fueled by their ultimate greed and great mistrust of each other.
There really is quite a striking tone that director Kevin McMullin creates within the film. There’s a confidence in the direction that makes for strong framing choices and attention to details that help to build an uneasy tension throughout. The portrait he paints of a group of friends who slowly but surely lose their trust in one another, as each participates in their own conspiratorial acts, is quite a fascinating journey to go through. This is only his first feature film, but McMullin shows a lot of promise behind the camera and creating an atmosphere full of engaging filmmaking.
In fact, McMullin’s skills as a director are a great asset because they go a long way in making up for his screenplay. There is a particular dullness that is felt in the first act of the film, in which the camaraderie between the characters is never genuinely felt and the sense of momentum to push the story forward feels nil. As it unfolds, there does seem to be a tighter focus, but the script never feels like it elevates itself out of surface-level explorations. It is interesting to witness the downfall of these friends, but it is also frustrating to not have a good sense of what that intact core once was. There is also a layer of toxic masculinity on display that is not interrogated as much as it could be, which only adds to some of the script’s shortcomings.
The cast assembled here features a range of talented performers, though I’d argue that most of them do not get to showcase their full potential. Martell, most known for his portrayal of the younger Bill in the “It” films, carries most of the film’s emotional weight, and it is a serviceable turn but not anything groundbreaking. Still, he is probably giving the best performance in the film, helped by his character’s arc. Johnson, Neustaetder, and Zolghadri never really play outside their designated lines of stoicism, sociopathic, and quirky, respectively, but they are still effective to a degree. The supporting players don’t offer much, particularly Kristine Froseth in a thankless romantic subplot. Even a brief appearance by Shea Whigham bring disappointment for just how limited he is in the story.
The film does have many faults when it comes to its screenplay, and that is its biggest detriment. It shackles the film to a hollow first act, uninteresting tangents and shallow supporting characters that don’t offer as much as they could. Still, the actors do their best with the material, and it really must be said that an incredible sense of direction helps to keep the film afloat. Without the strong filmmaking behind it, the film would be nowhere near as engaging as it is. It manages to unfold this drama quite effectively, even when so many other elements work against it.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Great direction that helps to sell the tension and drama within the story. A capable ensemble of actors.
THE BAD – A screenplay lacking in total engagement with its story and characters. Supporting characters that aren’t given that much to do. Some subplots are uninteresting.