Venice 2012: 'Low Tide' review

★★★☆☆
Roberto Minervini's accomplished feature, Low Tide (2012), is set in the badlands of Texas and focuses upon a boy and his mother one long, hot summer. The Boy (brilliant newcomer Daniel Blanchard) is a Huckleberry Finn of the contemporary USA: he enjoys the timeless boyish pursuits of catching frogs, fishing and exploring the countryside but these are minor interludes between backbreaking errands, cleaning up after his mother (the excellent Melissa McKinney) and earning a living. A little less Twain and a lot more Dickens.

The film shares elements with today's earlier Venice screening, Terrence Malick's To the Wonder (2012), with vast landscapes and virtually no spoken dialogue. Yet this story is told without the need for soaring soundtracks or dull voice-overs. Blanchard captures our attention and doesn't let it go as we follow him from supermarket to care home (where he helps his mother do her job) and riverbed to slaughterhouse. As in Malick's latest, we peer into the homes and lives of America's neglected underbelly but are spared any homilies by a ruminating priest.

Minervini has used non-professional cast members here in Low Tide as he did in his previous work, The Passage (2011). There is thus more than a hint of the documentary about it, making our fears for its young protagonist all the greater. In a chilling scene, we see the Boy dragged from his bed to partake in one of his mother's umpteenth parties, her boyfriend determined that the child should swill some beer, smoke some dope and lose his virginity. Mom passes by with barely a murmur and it is the Boy who has to defend himself.

The Boy is pretty much alone for much of Minervini's film and he carries both it and his mother, their roles reversed as he makes her dinner, gets her up for work and tucks her into bed when she's sick. Yet when we see them at the care home together, when his mother gives him orders he responds with a deferential "Yes, ma'am" showing that despite her apparent dissipation she is a strict and not entirely absent parent. When the 12-year-old Boy finally does lose control the Mother takes charge. We are left with the final image of them on the beach and see how repentant she is, albeit with a can of beer in her hand.

Though painting a pretty grim picture of this modern Huck/Oliver's life, Minervini's Low Tide offers a glimmer of hope for its young hero. This is a fine piece of contemporary storytelling, much lacking at this year's 69th Venice Film Festival.

The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link. 

Jo-Ann Titmarsh

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