The Kid Stays in the Picture

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Max Lowe has overcooked the short ribs. He announces this before I’ve taken my first bite. “Sorry, I forgot to turn the oven down,” he says glumly. I’m sitting at a table in Max’s backyard in Bozeman, Montana, at the house he shares with his fiancée, a sunshiny nurse named Lia Argyrakis. Max’s mom, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, has arrived for dinner carrying salad in a wooden bowl.

Jenni, now in her late sixties, is an artist with a long, gray braid and a thing for wildflowers. She lives across the street in the same craftsman where Max grew up. The room where she paints bright, textured canvases of bears and honeybees was Max’s childhood bedroom. It has robin’s-egg blue walls and a tiny twin bed that’s hard to believe could ever have fit Max, who at six feet five inches is towering over the table.

Max and Lia’s yard is leafy and lush, dotted with flowers and wooden fairy houses left over from the previous owner. Jenni points out bleeding hearts, catmint, and lupines, while Max serves us heaping plates of mushroom larb with fresh mint, steamed rice flecked with sesame seeds, sautéed Broccolini, and those slow-cooked short ribs, a touch on the tough side but soaked in a pleasing gingery soy marinade. Max loves to cook, but I’m not here to talk about food.

Max, who’s 34, works as a freelance filmmaker, mostly directing documentaries that sit either squarely in or adjacent to the adventure world. He has directed shorts on polar bears in the Arctic, migratory raptors in the West, U.S. Army vets going back to Iraq for a ski expedition, and the quirky culture of slacklining.

In fall 2021, Max debuted his biggest and most personal project to date: Torn, a feature-length documentary about his family’s legendary past and his place in it. As the story goes, Max’s father, Alex Lowe, was one of the most decorated climbers of his era, with notable first ascents from the Himalayas to Antarctica. On October 5, 1999, Alex, then 40, died, along with cameraman David Bridges, in an avalanche on the south face of 26,335-foot Shishapangma in Tibet. Their bodies were not recovered at the time of the accident.

Alex left behind his wife, Jenni, and their three boys: Max, then ten, Sam, seven, and Isaac, three. After his death, Jenni grew close to Alex’s best friend and climbing partner, alpinist Conrad Anker, who had narrowly survived the Shishapangma avalanche. Jenni and Anker married two years later, and Anker later adopted her three sons as his own. Anker and Jenni have been married for 22 years now. These days, when Max and his brothers talk about their dad, it’s not Alex they’re referring to, it’s Anker.

This oft repeated tale of love and loss in the mountains has shaped Max’s life. Torn told the story from a new vantage: that of a son. It is to date his most significant work, a defining project that introduced Max Lowe to the world.

Torn was brilliantly crafted and critically acclaimed. National Geographic commissioned the film with a $1.4 million budget, and it received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Telluride Film Festival. It won an award for best feature at Canada’s Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival, and grand prize at the Kendal Mountain Festival in England.

But Max doesn’t want to hang his hat on Torn. He’s not going to let this singular drama define him any longer. The real question is: Can he apply the raw talent on display in that film to stories other than his own?

This fall, Max is finishing up a 38-minute documentary called Camp Courage, about a Ukrainian woman in her sixties named Olga who accompanies her 13-year-old granddaughter, Milana, to a rock-climbing camp in the Austrian Alps after they were made refugees by the war. It was acquired by Netflix as a stand-alone short, and is set for release in 2024. Max is also in the process of directing a new feature-length film about nurses and the health care industry, a project that stars Lia.

At dinner, Jenni talks proudly of her three sons, now men in their twenties and thirties, all of them lanky as basketball players. (Anker has gone for dinner at Sam and his wife’s house down the street.)

“Do you worry that Max won’t find another story like Torn?” I ask Jenni.

“No,” she says flatly. “If you watch his other films, you can see he has this capacity to connect in a real way with people that a lot of directors don’t. That’s his superpower. Max can get into people’s heads and hearts. It takes an introspective person to do that.”

There’s a scene in Torn where Max interrogates his mom about falling in love with Anker so soon after Alex died. It’s tense to watch, and it strips away any sense that Max is going to be delicate or easy on his subjects. “I was surprised, and thought, How dare you ask me that?” Jenni says. “But I was able to answer because I’m just as forthright as he is.”

Max isn’t making traditional, big-action adventure films, the kind where a climber is dangling off a cliff set to suspenseful music and you’re not sure if he’ll live or die. His films are the opposite. They’re set in the outdoors, but the action isn’t outside: it’s within.