The sound swells at the beginning of director Christian Sparkes’ 2023 psychological drama, The King Tide, as we witness a ferocious storm battering an isolated Newfoundland island. From this natural majesty, we find ourselves in a dark and unlit room, with the rain tapping impatiently against the windowpane. Cries can be heard from elsewhere in the house where tragedy has struck. There’s water on the floor, blood in the bathtub, and a woman weeps in her husband’s arms. She has lost their baby.
The storm rocking the island, knocking out its power, is not the only one. Inside the home of Bobby Bentham (Clayne Crawford), the mayor, and his wife Faye (Frances Fisher), fate unleashes a cruel and painful storm on the couple, denying them the safe delivery of their child. In a strange twist of fate, when Bobby ventures out with other islanders after the storm has passed to restore the electricity, he hears the cries of a baby washed up in the storm. What fate denies him and Faye, nature delivers – a daughter, Isla (Alix West Lefler).
The King Tide immediately sweeps you into its visual and audio poetry, striking you like waves crashing on the shore with the contrast of violence, beauty, hope, and despair. It’s a rousing opening that conveys we’re in the confident hands of the filmmakers.
Ahead of the World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, I connected remotely with Sparkes and two of his lead actors, Clayne Crawford, and Alix West Lefler, to briefly discuss a highlight of this year’s programme.
Talking about the film’s rousing opening scenes, Sparkes admits that the striking aesthetic is intentional. “I tend to shot list the films very closely, and I make a very thorough director’s look-book too, so the film’s look and feel are well established in advance,” he says. “Then I share it with the actors, the production designer, and the cinematographer so that when the cameras roll, ideally, we all know what film we’re making.”
Despite the methodical approach, he knows the film they set out to make will change. He recalls how there were many instances when the film’s cast challenged their character’s dialogue or wanted their character to be more active. He admits that this type of collaboration is not for everyone, but he personally loves it. With a hint of humour in his voice, he clarifies, “I don’t always love that at the moment, but I love it now, and I love it when it gets to the editing room because that’s where the magic lies.”
Isla’s discovery in the storm’s aftermath can be likened to the story being borne from the literal storm and to the emotional upheaval of loss and grief. The storm in The King Tide highlights the hardship of living on an isolated island. Moments prior to discovering Isla, Bobby and his close friend Beau (Aden Young) discuss the future. Bobby says, “It’s just a little storm. Nothing we can’t come back from”, but Beau tells him they should wonder what they’re still doing on the island.
The discovery of the baby with mysterious healing gifts answers Beau’s question. Fearful of the mainlanders learning of the miracle child, the islanders isolate themselves completely.
After ten years, tragedy strikes when Isla’s miraculous abilities fade, and the fallout threatens their fragile democracy. Some islanders want to sneak Isla off the island to the mainland, while others fear losing the miracle child, whose abilities have offered them a decade of health and prosperity.
“When you tell a story like this, as a writer, you have to be highly focused on the overall theme and the big picture,” says Crawford. “It’s an elevated world with the subject matter as it relates to Isla’s powers, the magic that surrounds this community, and how it benefits everyone.” He adds, “As actors, being too conscious of those themes and the underlining tone can sometimes cloud the film or the performance.” Crawford recalls on set they were collectively hyper-focused on making sure the relationships were highly developed to immerse the audience in these characters.
Despite its supernatural or magical overtures, The King Tide is entrenched in the human drama. As the story unfolds, the communal harmony fades, replaced with suspicion and adversarial conflict as the community divides. Sparkes and screenwriters William Woods and Albert Shin meticulously tease this fragility that lays beneath the picturesque and romantic image of island life.
At the centre of this is Bobby, whose democratic power is underpinned by the community’s co-operation. He must negotiate complicated political dynamics, for example, when the fishermen want to use Isla to replenish their fish stores to sustain the island through the winter. Later, when he wants to cancel ritualistic visitations with Isla, his mother-in-law reminds him of the need for democratic decision-making. It’s a moment that’s conscious of the feminine influence behind masculine power that shaped royal dynasties across the centuries.
The way Sparkes and Crawford speak about creative conflict suggests a duality between the burgeoning conflict in the story and the conflict in the filmmaking process, albeit the outcome is different. “We didn’t always agree, but I feel very confident about where we ended up,” says Sparkes. “Sometimes, through conflict and a difference of opinion, that’s where the best ideas come from. That’s often true, and that’s true here.”
Crawford believes these conflicts are what’s great about The King Tide. “The people that show up who are, “Tell me where to stand, tell me what to say and how to say it,” it’s like, oh crap, we’ve already lost,” he tells me. “We’ve all watched our own movie in our heads; we all have this idea. Now, how do we make the same film?” He adds, “Strong opinions make something beautiful, and having a leader like Christian gives the actors the comfort to create – this safe space to challenge the ideas and the material.”
Isla is enigmatic, expressing an undulating rhythm through words, silence, and emotion. Reflecting on her character, West says, “Isla is a very present person. She’s joyful and happy, but if she knows something is wrong, she can definitely pull back into that sad part of herself.”
Here, Crawford enthusiastically interjects to offer his thoughts on his young co-star, describing her as a grounded human being. “At times, she almost moves in slow motion. Where kids can be hyper-active and move quickly and sporadically, Alix is very deliberate, and the camera loves that”, he observes. “Then because she comes prepared for those moments that may require a specific amount of emotion, as it relates to performing dialogue, she’ll come in with a clear idea of what that scene entails.”
According to Crawford, Alix can fully occupy those scenes where she needs to be passively present. She leaves it to the audience to project their ideas and thoughts onto what her character thinks and feels. He says it’s a rare gift amongst actors, and for her to possess it at this young age will serve her well throughout her career.
Isla’s a character that we know through the limited point-of-view of the islanders, and she’s predominantly a catalyst for the drama surrounding her, especially the moral debate that ensues around her well-being versus the island’s wellbeing. Isla may be part of the community, yet she remains an outsider. She’s beloved by the islanders for the rewards they reap from her presence on the island, and her gifts are an amusement for the other children. They deliberately harm themselves, and then Isla heals them. Unintentionally, she’s reduced to an oddity by the other children despite their affection for her. The Tide King relies on its audience to sympathise with Isla, and to consider how this marginalised person feels.
Sparkes turns to West and says, “I’m not sure how you feel because we’re talking about you directly.” Redirecting his attention, he tells me, “Child actors are a mystery to us, and they’re a mystery to themselves. How can they be so young yet so wise and talented without much life experience?”
Throughout The King Tide, the story explores the playfulness of genre cinema to conceal themes and ideas. Gradually, the film’s allegorical intentions emerge. Sparkes, Wood, and Shin use the film to critique people’s possessiveness, and Isla is a metaphor for humankind’s toxic relationship with the planet.
“The best genre films often have more on their mind than they let on. They’re primarily busy entertaining you, and it’s only slowly, oftentimes as you get towards the end credits, what the film is about starts to emerge,” says Sparkes. “Many times with film and art, it’s our job to pose the question, not necessarily answer it. We can serve the audience the food, but we don’t need to chew it for them. There’s a mystery in art that the audience can take away with them when they leave the theatre. This was our intention with The King Tide.”