Film - Low Life

Jon B watched Low Life, on recently at Raindance Film Festival...

For his debut feature-length, Tyler Michael James has thrown himself into the thematic deep-end. As all decency would suggest, paedophilia – as a core theme – is mostly exempt from the film sphere, save for perturbing oddities like Todd Solonz’ Happiness, David Slade’s Hard Candy, and Augusti Villaronga’s Tras el cristal. The taboo-of-taboos requires shrewd, careful navigation to implement in any form of media without coming across as a provocative knucklehead at best or a deranged creep at worst, hence why it’s generally – and understandably – kept out of sight and out of mind.

Enter Low Life, where said knucklehead is embodied by protagonist Benny Jansen, a paedophile-hunting YouTuber who presents his stings with the same mannerisms as 2016-era Logan Paul – in other words, he’s a caricature of the recently de-platformed Chet Goldstein. Jansen is a thick-witted narcissist, pursuing spectacle over substance and refusing to operate within the legal framework, going so far as to work with an underage informant who sends him indecent images of herself to coerce a suspect into meeting up, implicating him in child pornography possession. You would expect this to be the catalyst for Jansen’s downfall, yet – spoilers – it’s barely touched upon.

Jansen’s real downfall occurs when he invites said suspect into his home, attempting to sting them speedily so his sixteen-year-old accomplice won’t lose faith in him. Unexpected visits from friends, combined with questionable decision-making and raw impulse, causes Jansen’s night to go from bad, to worse, to irredeemable – a bit like Low Life’s screenwriting.

Low Life is stylized, exploitative schlock. It lacks cerebral maturity to see its taboos as anything more than vapid plot devices. This would work if we were more immersed in Jansen’s desensitised perspective – maybe in a psychological drama style al-a Gaspar Noe’s I Stand Alone – but, alas, this is a popcorn-thriller first and foremost. It’s decidedly disconnecting when Jansen, his friends, and the predator in question sit around a table for twenty minutes, engaging in graphic-yet-superfluous paedophilic discussion, likely the result of undisciplined, improv-friendly direction. It’s one scene of many that suffers from chronic pacing drag; it could be cut by ten minutes or tactfully re-written entirely.

Very few story beats exist in Low Life. Instead, elongated scenes of characters freaking out bloat the run-time; it’s excruciating to the point where I feel this could have been a short as opposed to a feature. To make matters worse, Low Life’s warped sense of narrative logic feels less like the folly of the protagonist and more-so a contrived creation of the filmmakers. Jansen is moronic enough to not even password-lock his computer, thus a villain can conveniently access it. Not even the predator in question has heard of password-locking; Jansen accesses his computer with ease. Another character draws a knife and just stands there while their target spouts exposition instead of turning around. A deceased character comes back to life for no reason other than to be killed again for shock value. The list goes on.

Further issues include a “terminator” character aggravated by Jansen at the start of the film, existing only to tie up loose ends rather than possess any kind of nuance. It’s implied this guy can ruin Jansen’s reputation by surfacing his dubious past, but this is vague at best and still renders the character as merely utilitarian for the plot. He considers murder as the solution, so this ultimately doesn’t matter anyway. Frankly, I find it odd that Jansen can only be threatened by people he knows instead of an anonymous doxxer – he's more than susceptible to it, considering his public image and lack of security.

Regarding its themes, Low Life – at times – seems too eager to indulge in its own smut. When it’s at its absolute worst, it makes damaging insinuations. It features two underage female characters who seemingly exist to tempt Jansen by flirting with him. Nicole, his accomplice, goes from being traumatised at the sight of a murder to openly stating it’s “alright [for Jansen] to look at her [ILLEGAL] nudes” because she finds him cute. A secondary character – of fifteen years of age – suggests Jansen should have sex with her because… why not? Low Life treats its mid-teen girls like teases who are asking for it. It’s grotesque, ignorant, and frat boy levels of irresponsible.

On its positives, Low Life is technically competent. It’s well-shot, graded, and produced – with a killer soundtrack to boot. However, these facets become less poignant due to shameless derivation from its influences, notably the Safdie brothers. From the high-contrast palette to the neon-tinged close-ups, to the unashamedly Oneohtrix Point Never-influenced soundtrack – which I found enjoyable on its own merits, but severely unfitting for a film about unfiltered paedophilia. Said influence is visible even in direction, where dialogue appears improvised with heavy doses of panic and excessive swearing. Even so, Tyler James brings out convincing performances from the cast, despite the one-note hysteria.

However, this isn’t enough to save this regressive sleaze-fest, nor redeem it for treating its subject matter with such unrelenting bad-taste while having profoundly little to say about it. I want to pretend Low Life is smarter than it looks; an intelligent satire that the hunter is as bad as the hunted, and we’re deliberately immersed in the fucked-up mindset of a fucked-up man. Yet, its contemptuous attitude towards underage women, combined with a poor writing and editing standard, reflects shock-jock filmmakers who saw the video of EDP445 getting busted and used it as their creative pillar. The less attention this gets, the better.

Review © Jon B 2022 All rights reserved

Find Jon on Letterboxd at

Image - Raindance/IMDb

Powered by Blogger.