“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.
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.