“Islander” rises to that state where lovers of good movies like to dwell.
With a strong sense of place and consistent authenticity, “Islander” rises to that state where lovers of good movies like to dwell: the suspension of all else except what we are watching on the screen. The man who knew this island is Thomas Hildreth, producer/co-writer/star of the film who absorbed the culture while growing up there. His confidence creates the perfect backdrop for the subtle, never overwrought work of director Ian McCrudden. The collaborators know how to handle unnerving events in a culture of understatement.
Resentment toward mainland fishermen is deepening as they set their lobster pots ever closer in waters claimed by island fishermen. Against the cooler advice of his elders, Eben Cole (Thomas Hildreth) sets off in a hotheaded, youthful rage to confront the poachers. Armed, he challenges two mainlanders and causes an accident that kills a young man. As the boy’s body is brought ashore in Vinalhaven, the stage is set for Eben’s accountability, punishment, and slow path to redemption.
After serving a five year jail term, Eben returns to the island to find his community closed to him in coldness. He has lost his wife Cheryl (Amy Jo Johnson), daughter Sarah (played by two fine young Maine actresses), his boat, and his first mate (James Parks) to his old friend Jimmy (Mark Kiely). Rejected, Eben takes a job in a junkyard. “I’m not exactly cut out for dry land.” But Eben has come back by choice, to be judged.
If Eben’s return from prison seems abrupt, it allows Hildreth and McCrudden to focus entirely on his redemption. They let us soak up the reactions and behavior of the people he has known all his life. The cast is flawless. We won’t forget the images of the fishing boats moving slowly out of the harbor in the early morning mist, or the sun cutting through to cast bright light on the white hulls. We have absorbed, from our distance, the sight of men setting their pots in all kinds of weather, of the physical dangers inherent in their work, of the presence of peer support – until the code is broken.
A junkyard accident brings Eben to Emily (Judy Prescott), the island doctor, and her son Wyatt who is studying the trade. Eben’s patience is rewarded with a gesture of acceptance from Popper (Phillip Baker Hall in a moving performance), a lobsterman who offers to take him on. As the old life falls away, a new one is earned.
Hildreth and McCrudden had a genuine sense of how Eben and the islanders would move under stress. They have made a memorable film on a micro budget without sets of any kind; they ensured authenticity by using many residents in the cast. And above all, they created the stuff of the life on that island through a fine screenplay and a wealth of detail. Popper, who had given Eben his second chance, “was everything good about being from here.” And that’s why Eben came home.
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