On paper, Joe Raffa’s Downeast seems like a typical New England crime film about mobsters and well-meaning locals. The dialogue includes all the usual slang that one might expect from a regional genre film (“pops,” “townie,” etc.), and there’s even the archetypal Comic Relief Local With a Heavy Accent, a la Casey Affleck’s Morgan O’Mally from Good Will Hunting or Mark Wahlberg’s Sean Dignam from The Departed. But even though Downeast suffers from thinly-written supporting characters, the lead performances keep the film above water.
Downeast stars Greg Finley (The Secret Life of the American Teenager) as Tommy, a fisherman from Long Island, Maine who works on the Wild Irish Rose. When cocaine bricks show up in a lobster trap, his alcoholic father, George (Gareth Williams), orders the loot to be dumped overboard, even though he could use some money to resolve debts with underworld figures on the mainland. Back in town, Tommy reunites with his life-long crush, Emma (Dylan Silver), the sister of his former best friend, Mikey, who died under mysterious circumstances seven years prior. The protagonists slowly develop a romance, but Tommy’s complacency with his community role creates major problems when Emma begins investigating her brother’s death.
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Downeast wisely highlights the chemistry and talents of its two leads within the first five minutes. In a flashback beach sequence, the handsome Finley looks like a younger version of John Cena, while the alluring Silver communicates various emotions without speaking a single word. Both performers exude obvious star power throughout Downeast, and their characters’ interactions never feel forced. Unfortunately, Finley’s original story loses some momentum through Raffa’s screenplay. Rather than simply acknowledging Mikey’s death via character dialogue and then moving on, repeated flashbacks result in heavy exposition and clunky pacing. It’s painfully obvious that Tommy had something to do with his friend’s death, and so the ultimate reveal feels underwhelming because of the constant foreshadowing. Still, Raffa’s screenplay includes several laugh-out-loud moments involving Kirk Fox’s charismatic fisherman character, Marty, who describes himself as “the Tom Brady of catching lobster” and later delivers a clever vertebrae-themed joke after being physically attacked by a mobster.
Downeast maintains suspense with its organized crime element (featuring Judson Mills as the boss Kerrigan and Joss Glennie-Smith as the henchman Brennan); however, Raffa blatantly explains the subtext from act to act. If Tommy states that he feels hesitant about pursuing a relationship with his best friend’s sister, it seems unnecessary to include a complementary flashback sequence that doubles down on the concept. And the same applies to Tommy’s memories about Mikey’s death. The audience doesn’t need to see an extended sequence showing the actual crime if the specifics have already been communicated. Because Downeast favors Tommy’s history of violence over his history of romance with Emma, a climactic and grandiose line about enduring love doesn’t feel earned. Fortunately, though, Finley and Silver’s nuanced performances (see the tiny tears and a face slap heard ’round the world) and undeniable chemistry (see the first kiss) make the moment feel believable. Next time around for Raffa, it might be worth incorporating a little more visual style, along with a couple more scenes that strengthen the main relationships (and offer more character detail beyond the obvious).
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.