“Finestkind,” the name of both Brian Helgeland’s new film and the high-line fishing boat Tommy Lee Jones captains within it, is one of those words that New Englanders find hard to define, but seem to have no trouble using in a sentence. It means quality — of fish, of people, of principles — and it sets the bar for the shaggy family portrait Helgeland crafts around two half-brothers wrestling with their place in the blue-collar New Bedford community.
The movie, alas, is just so-so, tripping over its own feet for the first couple reels until such time as the siblings cross the Northern Line to (illegally) dredge for scallops in Canadian waters, and then it gets good. Not the genre elements, mind you. There’s a stock plot in which the brothers need $100,000 to get the Finestkind ship out of impound, turning to a harebrained heroin-smuggling plot that goes sideways in exactly the way you might expect, and resolves itself in an even more predictable manner. But if you choose to focus on the family connections, then it’s clear that Helgeland has something to say.
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Helgeland has made a handful of movies, ranging from “A Knight’s Tale” to “42,” but his best work came from adapting Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” a revenge story that cuts to the heart of the American Dream. Most people think that dream — the proverbial carrot so few ever catch — holds that anybody can achieve success in this country. But working-class folks know it takes time, generations even, as parents make incremental progress, hoping their kids can live a more comfortable life. The tragedy of “Mystic River” came in seeing such opportunity cut short, when a daughter with promise is brutally murdered.
“Finestkind” has a more complicated take on the situation, but shares the idea that parents want things to be better for their kids. Here, college boy Charlie (Toby Wallace) and hardscrabble older sibling Tom (Ben Foster) were born to different dads. Tom’s had a falling out with his father (Jones), a salty Texas transplant who describes himself as “that son of a bitch Ray Eldridge everyone tries to steer clear of.” Ray’s a cantankerous old soul, but he wants Tom to have his boat. Meanwhile, Charlie has no interest in becoming like his lawyer dad, Dennis (Tim Daly), who married the brothers’ mom (Lolita Davidovich) and moved her to the nice part of town.
The movie makes a bigger deal of class than Charlie himself does. He grew up with privileges that Tom didn’t, and yet, Charlie idolizes his older brother, begging to accompany him on a fishing trip. “I’m curious about me,” he tells Tom. But their bonding experience is cut short when something explodes in the engine room and Tom’s boat sinks. Reunited at last, the siblings’ first outing together was nearly their last. But instead of being scared off by the near-death experience, Charlie doubles down (that’s actually the name of another boat they borrow). Instead of going to law school at Boston U., he wants to spend a year on the water.
Helgeland takes that goal seriously, which is admirable — the opposite of the view so many Hollywood movies preach that the only freedom kids in dead-end communities can find is leaving town for the New York or Los Angeles. Charlie wants to work with his hands, and on that aforementioned trip into Canadian waters, “Finestkind” finally hits its stride. The movie doesn’t look like much (the compositions are bland and clumsily cut together) but DP Crille Forsberg deserves credit for capturing the texture of the fishing trips: We see the crew hauling hundreds of shells onto the decks, handling the dredges and shucking the scallops by hand.
Foster is always great, coming across more mellow here than in films such as “Hell or High Water,” whose director, Taylor Sheridan, is one of this project’s producers. Wallace, who plays Charlie, appears in three films premiering in the span of one week on the fall festival circuit: “The Bikeriders,” “The Royal Hotel” and now this. He plays very different characters in each, though it’s clear from all three that he’s a star in the making. Both he and Foster are unpredictable performers, cocked and ready to spring at the slightest provocation — and yet, Helgeland leans into their sensitivity instead.
In Charlie’s case, that tenderness is brought out by a local girl, Mabel (a tough-acting Jenna Ortega), who’s mixed up with drug dealers, but wants to go to community college. The morning after these two hook up, the film sends them racing across town in her Volkswagen — a clunky scene, but one that sticks with you, as it’s one of several moments when the characters really come alive. Other beats are more obvious, as when Ray reveals that he has cancer, which gives him enough slack to be reckless (think “The Shootist”). But Helgeland still manages to surprise, especially when it comes to what Tom and Charlie’s two dads are willing to do for such reckless sons as these. If the word “finestkind” applies here, it’s to the fathers, on whom the Dream depends.
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