There’s a stagnating whiff of familiarity hanging over Finestkind, Brian Helgeland’s personally-informed portrait of a splintered family of fishermen struggling to reconnect with each other over choppy New Bedford, Massachusetts, waters.
Although anchored by a number of strong performances, particularly those of Ben Foster and fresh-faced Toby Wallace as estranged half-brothers attempting to find common ground despite their different upbringings, Helgeland’s meandering film still feels stuck in another place in time. It actually isn’t surprising to learn that the writer-director, himself coming from a Norwegian family of fisherfolk working in the U.S. industry since the 1930s, had initially crafted a version of the script 25 years ago, at the time offering the the role of Wallace’s Charlie to Heath Ledger. Over the following years, Helgeland would complete three more versions of the script, but while the end result is set in the present day, there’s a palpable throwback, been-there-done-that vibe to the proceedings.
The Bottom Line
Shipshape cast, water-logged plot.
On the strength of the performances — also including those of Tommy Lee Jones as Foster’s grizzly, brine-soaked dad and Jenna Ortega as Wallace’s self-possessed love interest — the film should still draw some curious viewers when it lands on Paramount+ in November.
Scheduled to begin law school in the fall but still trying to find himself, Charlie (Wallace) opts to spend his summer vacation working alongside his brother, Tom (Foster), and his crew aboard a fishing trawler. Despite his inexperience, Charlie proves to be a quick study, and welcomes the opportunity to reunite with his older sibling, with whom he shares the same mother (Lolita Davidovich), while nicely fitting in with the New Bedford community, to the disapproval of his button-down lawyer dad (Tim Daly).
He also gets close to Mabel (Ortega), the spirited daughter of a drug-dealing mom, who is attempting to find her own path in life. Meanwhile, brooding Tom struggles to square himself with his cantankerous biological dad, Ray Eldredge (Jones).
Agreeing to take ailing Ray’s highliner, Finestkind (the “Swiss Army Knife of words” derives from an old fishing expression that can mean anything from “great” to “go to hell,” depending on the situation) out on a scallop-fishing expedition, Tom defies instructions and pushes the vessel out into Canadian waters. That attracts the attention of the Canadian Coast Guard, which impounds the boat. Desperate to come up with the substantial cash to get it back, Tom, Charlie and Mabel find themselves doing business with a violent Boston gang on a drug drop that goes seriously wrong.
Right around the time the Finestkind crosses the line into Canadian territory, the film, too, veers tonally off-course, shifting from keenly observed family drama to Mystic River-esque crime thriller, and hooking its share of genre clichés along the way. You can tell the setting comes from a personal place for Helgeland, whose own experiences as an English major learning the ropes as an apprentice commercial fisherman informs the immersive attention to detail that fills those New Bedford backdrops.
That sort of on-the-job commitment required for the gig is tailor-made for Foster, a character actor known for always coming prepared, bringing his usual gravitas to the role of a loner who takes to the sea as a trusty escape route away from those complicated family dynamics. Wallace, an Australian actor who’s enjoying a bit of a fall fest moment, also appearing in Kitty Green’s The Royal Hotel, instills his character with a strong sense of conviction as he endeavors to map out his future.
And, of course, there’s reliable Jones on hand to add earthiness as a credible career seaman with incurable cancer who regards his boat as his hospice. He somehow manages to make lines like “You live, you die, it’s the in-between part that counts” palatable.
By the point at which a character repeats it for the third time, though, you’re left wishing that Helgeland had more effectively heeded that advice.