I first saw Fairhaven when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last April, and then I saw it again in early January. The reason for that distinction is because the plot takes place during the winter, in the harsh brittle cold of Fairhaven, Massachusetts. It’s the type of small film that can produce a very intimate and immersive experience and so needless to say, January helped my sentiment towards it. New England just makes you want to bundle up.
Fairhaven is director Tom O’Brien’s first feature length film and it’s a solid starting effort. He collaborated on the script and also shares a lead role with Chris Messina, one of the stronger actors in many smaller films this year. Messina plays Dave, the antagonist of sorts and springboard of the story. His father has died and so he returns to his small fishing town to old friends and memories. Someone posted in their own small review that the film feels like it could be a television series, and rightly so. A quasi-“Northern Exposure” of thirty-something friends nestled together for warmth and by their common past.
This is a very spiritual, searching film. O’Brien’s character Jon is the centerfold of the reunion of friends, a struggling poet making his means working on a fishing boat. In between exposition, he strolls around his neighborhood, pausing at the frigid beaches and high school football field. Jon, a former quarterback, has recently fallen into an existential wrestle with New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady’s comments during a recent interview in which he proclaimed that there had to be more to his life than just winning three Super Bowls. It’s something Jon professes to his therapist, caught in between his own search for meaning, his own fulfilling vocation, underneath the crippling nostalgia of his hometown.
It’s something he also converses over with his friends. They are Angela, his “open” girlfriend (Alexie Gilmore), Sam (Rich Sommer), and Sam’s ex-wife Kate (Sarah Paulson). Then of course there’s Dave, Jon’s closest friend and yet whose presence feels distant and obtuse. He arrives and immediately begins smoking weed, drinking alcohol, and finding fun at a strip club with Jon. He doesn’t greet his mother until the next day, someone he hasn’t forgiven since his father left her for another marriage. He is an unwilling participant, and uses the weekend to rehash high school glory; find girls, get wasted, don’t think about anyone else.
But everyone around him is grown up. Sam is a realtor and now single father, and has yet to rebound with another woman, an emptiness that tries to find substance at Dave’s irking. A guy’s night out climaxes (I use that word intentionally) in a revealing scene that Sommer and his date (Natalie Gold) handle with care. Kate is remarried to an older man and has settled down after a curious past with Dave, a subtle announcement he makes to Jon that threatens the integrity of their former group friendship. Jon is along for the ride in all this, tethered loosely to Angela, to life.
The script fluctuates with moments of crisp dialogue but sometimes devolves into staler conversations. In its off beats, it pauses for reflection much like its characters, pandering often to shots of the town and seascapes. I was reminded of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants in this way, in which scenes of lush Hawaii offered momentary bliss between dialogues. Here, the cold wintry neighborhood feels both calming and a place of psychological entrapment.
Dave, in his grisly look, urges Jon to “get out,” but look at what that’s done to him and his weakness to tempting vices. Sometimes however it takes a bulldozer to show just how weak one’s foundation really is. It’s fair to say these guy’s lives are under construction. But such is life; one step back, two steps forward.