On the eve of the king tide, a life is lost via miscarriage while another is found crying in the hull of a capsized boat come ashore. Is it a sign? Some cosmic balancing of scales? Perhaps a test of empathy, morality, and humanity for citizens of a small island village that will soon do anything to keep it as their own. Because this child isn’t like any other. She has an unexplainable gift: anyone near her will suddenly be healed of all ailments. If it’s a revelation that can change everything, its potential salvation is but one side of the coin. The other’s combination of complacency, jealousy, and divinity brings destruction.
Christian Sparkes’ The King Tide wrestles with this duality through its grounded sci-fi/fantasy premise in a way that has me describing it as The Village by way of Jeff Nichols. He does a wonderful job keeping Albert Shin and William Woods’ script (from a story by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby) quiet enough for us to really see the narrative play across characters’ faces. And by fast-forwarding ten years past the initial storm-fueled discovery of both Isla (Alix West Lefler) and her power, we’re able to witness an endgame without a need for sitting through the process. Learning that they’ve gone fully self-sufficient from the mainland is the only context needed.
The rest is implied. Bobby (Clayne Crawford) and Grace (Lara Jean Chorostecki) have raised her as their own in place of the child they lost. Her adoptive grandmother Faye (Frances Fisher) has been cured of the debilitating disease that had her twisted up in a chair. And resident doctor Beau (Aden Young) has found himself caught at the bottom of a bottle with no other purpose for remaining besides raising his son own Junior (Cameron Nicoll). One visit to Isla’s sanctuary as the townsfolk line up outside to take turns being near her reveals exactly what they’ve chosen to do instead of risking the world’s abuses. They’ve chosen to put her to work, exploiting her under the tragically thin pretense of love.
A chilling vibe runs through the narrative, everyone reciting the words “Many thanks to Isla” whenever they leave her as though she’s a God. Their ever-present smiles and utter lack of fear becoming off-putting, making it seem they’ve become members of a cult. Except it wasn’t at the behest of their Christ-like figure, but the person with the most to lose if she were ever taken away. Conversations revolve around Isla with an entitled tone that renders her little more than an object manipulated to serve their desires. She’s unwittingly been transformed into a crutch for lost souls desperate for meaning, ailing bodies craving youth, and hard-working neighbors seeking a reprieve. By “protecting” her from the outside world, they empower themselves.
And when the wheels do inevitably come off, the consequences prove a locomotive train running full-speed towards oblivion. The dominoes start falling as the resulting adversity drives a wedge no one save Beau had noticed until then. He was the first sacrifice to this new world order––he can recognize Isla as a prop. Not with resentment or vehemence, but with sorrow because of everything she’s missing by not simply being treated like a child. The village has put its health and prosperity on her shoulders and, in so doing, have torn her away from a real life. Stories of the “mainland” feel like dark fairy tales spoken in whispers. Curiosity proves a liability the elders cannot afford.
With potent performances and a gorgeous, textured aesthetic, The King Tide proves a mesmerizing experience above and below its surface. The camerawork keeps the horrors that unravel mostly to our imagination so we can continue to look at reactions rather than results. The terror here isn’t in just how powerful Isla is, but in what an infected groupthink that loses its grip on decency is willing to do in her name to unwittingly push her into discovering the full breadth of those abilities. When is enough finally enough? When does protection become harm? Because the love they all have for Isla isn’t for her; it’s for the people she’s allowed them to become.
This leads to a series of confrontations that gradually awaken some from the nightmare they’ve helped create while pulling others deeper into the void. Bobby and Grace aren’t exempt from this, either. They benefit most being that they live with Isla and absorb her gift when the others are forced home to await their turn. One tragedy is thus all it takes to tear this utopia down––one person’s heavy price is acceptable to those deluded into believing the sacrifice of others is the test rather than their willingness to sacrifice themselves. Give fanatics enough rope to cement their entitlement while losing their humanity and clarity will always come too late.
The King Tide premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.