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Coming home to another island

By Joyce Wagner - September 13, 2007

How often do we hear it? When someone comments on the beauty of Martha's Vineyard, predictably somebody replies, "Yes, but it's not what it used to be." An elder summer visitor remembers the peace on the Island in the days before World War II. Others recall the fun times when Carly Simon and her sister sang in small clubs here.

"It's not like it used to be," is the frequent lament of long-time year-rounders.

"Islander," a new indie film by Ian McCrudden, is the story of a man who returns to his island, trying to fit back in to what has become just a memory.

Eben Cole, played intensely by Thomas Hildreth (who also cowrote the screenplay with McCrudden), is a young lobster fisherman on the island of Vinalhaven in Maine. He's an open wound with a chiseled face - except when he's with his little girl (played by Emma Ford) or on his boat. Her smile and the island's waters melt the hard edges from his countenance.

Cole's trying to carve out a living in overfished waters, barely able to feed and clothe his wife, Cheryl (Amy Jo Johnson), and daughter. When a mainlander continues to set his traps in island waters, Eben, already established as a loose canon, takes it personally. He has had enough and he decides to take action, against the advice of his father and other island fishermen.


He sets out early in the morning and catches said mainlander in the act. They argue, and Cole proceeds to shoot at the mainlander's buoys as he tries to retrieve his traps. Frightened, the trespassing fisherman slams his boat into gear and lurches away from Cole, not realizing that his son's foot is caught in some gear that washes overboard. As does the boy.

Cole spends the next five years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. His father disowns him, his wife leaves him for his rival, and his little girl is kept from having any contact with him.

After five years, Cole returns to the island and that's where the real story begins. Cole arrives as clenched and hard-headed as when he left. He's determined to pick up his old life intact, but too much of his own life and the life of the Island has changed. The island has spit him out and did not expect him to return. Now he has to change in order to remain on the island.

Hildreth carries the story with some expert help. Most of the roles are actors who the viewer will recognize from theater, film and television. From Philip Baker Hall (Popper, Cole's mentor) to Mark Kiely (Jimmy, his rival), all have paid years of dues in many media and bring their professionalism to this picture. Amy Jo Johnson provides a suitably unlikable wife to Cole, without skimping on complexity. James Parks plays Pokey, Cole's only consistent friend. His role is small, but he inhabits every inch of it. The oldsters and fellow fishermen are gruff and grizzled without being clichéd.

The island of Vinalhaven is almost a character itself. In the tradition of Jaws, residents of the island play small speaking and extra parts. The shops, cottages, and Mcmansions will remind some local viewers of home, and the islanders' love of the water is amply illustrated in the dialogue and cinematography.

Although the film's metaphors can be a bit obvious (Cole cleans the graffiti "killer" from the front of his house just before his life turns around) it's skillfully directed. Ian McCrudden capably depicts the insular life of year-round islanders. Scenes of the difficult work of the fishermen and their humble homes is interspersed with achingly beautiful shots of the island and its surrounding waters. A serene sunrise precedes a violent confrontation.

When Eben Cole goes through his changes, we believe it. As the townspeople begin to warm up to him, we warm to him, too. He discovers that no man is an island and he needs to step back and reconfigure how he fits in with the his new status as a pariah and the changes in the island's culture itself. He goes through his final transition when he proclaims to Popper, "I don't know if I'll ever get it back the way it was."

Popper almost matter-of-factly replies, "It's never gonna be the way it was. Not meant to be."

Whether it refers to Vinalhaven or Vineyard Haven, that holds true. But we frequently find, like Eben Cole does, that sometimes it gets better.

"Islander" will be shown on Friday, Sept. 14 at 7 and 9:15 pm and Monday, Sept. 17, 7:30 pm at the Island Theater, Circuit Avenue, Oak Bluffs and Wednesday, Sept. 19, 7:30 pm, at Capawock Theater, Main Street, Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $8 or $6 for seniors. This film is rated R.

Joyce Wagner is a contributing writer to The Times.