The main draw on the surface of writer-director Marco Calvani’s lovely if overly dramatic feature debut is the jaw-dislocating physical beauty of its star. That might sound crass, but “High Tide” is a movie that dares you not to be obsessed with — and attracted to — its leading man. Actor Marco Pigossi, Calvani’s real-life partners, enters the first frame as if sculpted out of marble, or butter even, stripping down to nothing and rushing into the sea off a desolate nude beach along Provincetown, Massachusetts, in a spin of anguish.

The cold open is a bookend “High Tide” will return to at its climax. It’s also a chilly plunge into a baptismal, hoped-for catharsis for Lourenço (Pigossi), a Brazilian immigrant with an expiring tourist visa reeling from a sudden breakup and now stuck in the United States, hoping to stay there. Bereft and abandoned by his unseen American ex as the summer nears its end, Lourenço spends the dog days alone in a guesthouse owned by a gay, retired Cape Cod property owner named Scott (Bill Irwin), who loves gardening and cooking Italian on his own. Lourenço is haunted by the life and mother he left behind in Brazil, and the wounds of only recently coming into his own skin as a now-out gay man. A depiction of Jesus is tacked above his rented bed.

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Lourenço works as a part-time Airbnb housekeeper for Bob (Sean Mahon), a local who has a stick up his ass at all times. At night, Lourenço is either having quiet, contemplative talks with Scott — who has a preexisting friendship with Lourenço’s ex — or engaging in meaningless sexual encounters. One of those encounters borders on sexual assault in a way that will be all too familiar to this movie’s target audience, and it leaves Lourenço worried about HIV exposure and seeking PrEP for the first time.

“High Tide” is frank and honest about the often debasing mundanities of gay life in the PrEP era; one minute you’re getting pounded by a perfect stranger, and the next you’re sitting in a clinic under sterile bright lights and explaining yourself to a blank-faced nurse. But the film really soars when Lourenço forges a new romantic connection when he meets a Black vacationer at a nude beach. His name is Maurice (James Bland), and his chemistry with Lourenço is so immediate that “High Tide” finds itself drifting into “Before Sunrise” territory as these two get to know each other over a dinner that segues into a bacchanalian beach party that features an appearance from “Tangerine” breakout Mya Taylor (how we’ve missed her!), and later some complicated sex complete with positioning queries and pillow talk turned wrong.

Even mussed to hell after a long night, Pigossi has the sort of gorgeously flowing head of hair that makes you blush — and maybe lunge for some Propecia meds. Lourenço’s pervasive sadness, punctuated by jags of regret over the ex who left him behind to return to Brazil (as well as his discomfort over just coming out of the closet), is its own sort of sexy sad. But the power of Calvani’s direction and Pigossi’s performance is that they conspire to look below Lourenço’s very beautiful outsides and into his complex — similarly beautiful — interiors.

The nuances of Pigossi’s performance only deepen as the movie rolls on, including his understandable stiffness during a dinner hosted by Scott with a bitchy, out-of-touch lawyer (Bryan Batt, who played the infamously not-out Sterling Cooper employee Salvatore on “Mad Men”), whom Scott thinks could help Lourenço with his legal troubles. The stoking flash of lust between Lourenço and Maurice is the best part of the whole package, palpably hot, the sounds of cicadas whining in the backdrop, as Calvani — shooting on location in Cape Cod — evokes the textures of a time and place in a town descended upon by gays, many of whom are marooned each summer in one way or another.

“High Tide” reflects that drift through its gently lulling pace, which is comfortable to languish in the film’s characters and scenic beauty (“The Killing of Two Lovers” cinematographer Oscar Ignacio Jiménez is adept at capturing both). But Calvani makes the classic first-time filmmaker mistake of piling up the melodramas in the film’s final third rather than simply trusting his own smart, small story. “High Tide” skirts on the local racism posed to Maurice as the movie also touches on the suspense Lourenço experiences over his stalled attempts to secure a work visa in the States. These issues casually float around the movie until they subsume the film in its final third, which also involves a showdown with Lourenço’s employer Bob and his artist wife, played by Marisa Tomei, who’s just left Bob for a woman. It’s a lot. The dramas between Tomei’s character and her ex-husband seem so sideline compared to the actual ones moving Lourenço’s story forward — his hang-ups over his ex, his time-constrained connection to Maurice — and they eventually only exist to get the movie to its Hollywood Ending-adjacent conclusion, even with some appropriate ambiguity intact. But it’s that ambiguity “High Tide” already dwelt best in.

That said, there is plenty of filmmaking promise here, as well as some hot but achingly melancholic chemistry on screen that should attract festival audiences — and especially the gays in those audiences looking for savvy and specific romances on screen. What I wish for this film is that it had trusted the lilting rhythms of its own initial story more confidently rather than a crash into various melodramatic episodes in the finale that only serve to get us to a hurtled-toward cathartic ending. Much like the one Lourenço seems to be hoping for when he sprints naked into the ocean at the start.

Grade: B-

“High Tide” premiered at the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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