TORONTO — Early in “Finestkind,” a Massachusetts-based family drama that recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, the crew of a New Bedford fishing boat huddles together, lit only by the glow of a flashlight. During a pause in the chatter, the boat’s rookie poses a crucial question to the group: “What the hell does ‘finestkind’ mean? You guys always say it.”
Brian Helgeland, the writer and director of “Finestkind,” is still sorting out the answer. “It means anything and everything,” he said over lunch just a few hours before his film’s premiere. “It’s kind of like you have to live the word to know what it means.”
Set and shot in New Bedford, “Finestkind” follows Charlie (Toby Wallace), a recent college graduate with an English degree, as he joins his older half brother, Tom (Ben Foster), on a commercial fishing boat named Finestkind. Tom, a huffy but experienced captain, accepts his kid brother onto his crew grudgingly; he believes that Charlie, who grew up wealthy, should be working a white-collar job instead. The pair nonetheless grow close, until a work mishap strains their relationship and puts them in the tough situation of needing a load of cash fast. The film also features Tommy Lee Jones as Tom’s cantankerous father, a veteran fisherman facing health issues.
Helgeland, 62, said he first heard the word “finestkind” — a New England fishing trade expression — when he was growing up in New Bedford, where his father, father’s uncle, and mother’s brother all worked as local fishermen. Over years of hearing the term tossed around, Helgeland came to understand that finestkind could act as a catch-all. Depending on its context, the word could be a compliment or an insult, an exclamation of joy or an angry expletive. “It’s the Swiss army knife of words,” Tom explains to Charlie in the movie. “That’s the beauty of it.”
Helgeland, the acclaimed screenwriter known for 1997′s “L.A. Confidential” and 2003′s “Mystic River” (he won an Oscar for the former and was nominated for the latter), began the script for “Finestkind” nearly 30 years ago. It was an incredibly personal project: Almost all of the characters are based on men he knew from home, and Charlie was a loose sketch of himself as a young man just out of college. Helgeland made clear, though, that his educational path was windier than Charlie’s. He began college as a pre-med student at Boston University, but lost his scholarship due to poor grades. He ultimately transferred to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and majored in English.
Like Charlie, Helgeland joined a commercial fishing crew after graduation, where he spent long days working on deck and reading. After almost a year on the job, he was browsing in a bookstore when he stumbled on a guide to film school. “I’m exaggerating, but I describe it as the heavens opened up and a light shined down on this book,” he said, adding that if it were a movie, “all the sound disappears and violins start playing.” That guide rerouted Helgeland’s entire life. Two days before his next fishing trip, Helgeland applied to film programs around the country. He went on to make movies around the country and the world, although part of his heart, and most of his family, stayed in New Bedford.
Helgeland finished writing “Finestkind” around the year 2000, while he was working on “A Knight’s Tale,” starring the late Heath Ledger. When Helgeland shared the script with the 22-year-old movie star, Ledger fell in love with the role of Tom, despite being too young to play him at the time. “In his great, charming way, [Ledger] said, ‘Wait for me,’” Helgeland recalled. “I wasn’t in any hurry. So I said, ‘OK, I’ll wait for you.’ I’m still waiting.”
The project went through several iterations over the years. At one point, Jake Gyllenhaal was going to star as Tom, and Zendaya was attached to play Charlie’s love interest, Mabel. (The role is now played by Jenna Ortega.) But financial issues led that version of the film to fall apart, and the project sat on the shelf for a bit longer. “Finestkind” was finally shot in June 2022.
One of the film’s special qualities is its attention to the minutiae of fishing. When Helgeland stepped out to shoot the water scenes, he hadn’t been on a fishing boat since 1985. But the process came right back. “We didn’t have a technical adviser. I was the technical adviser,” he said. His knowledge came in handy: In one lengthy, fascinating sequence, the crew teaches Charlie how to catch, shuck, and clean fresh sea scallops before packing them into what one crew member calls “bags of gold.”
“I used to get notes on that section of the script,” Helgeland recalled. “People would say, ‘Why did this turn into a documentary about fishing?’ And I would say, ‘No, you get to go to a world that you could never go to.’”
The scenes also serve as a showcase for the trade, demonstrating the men’s synergy and skill. “Big surprise: These guys are doing exactly what they want in life. The big mistake would be to portray them as, oh, poor guy, he didn’t get a business degree,” Helgeland said, adding, “If there’s a class element to it, it’s me saying this is as valid a life as any life.”
Despite all the time the filmmaker has spent on boats — both as a commercial fisherman and on set — he still hesitates to use the term finestkind in conversation. “I don’t personally say it, for whatever reason. I don’t think I fished long enough to be able to,” he reflected. It was just a few hours before he would take the stage and introduce “Finestkind” to a world premiere audience. “It’s like it is with [Charlie] and his brother,” he said. “It’s not my word yet.”
Natalia Winkelman is a film critic based in Brooklyn, N.Y.