“Fairhaven,” the directorial debut of actor Tom O’Brien, benefits from its keen sense of observation. Set in the titular Fairhaven, Mass. during the events leading up to the funeral of the protagonist’s character, the film’s lack of urgency allows the audience to calmly and closely observe the characters. Even if the plot covers familiar thematic tropes, the realistic dialogue feels both improvised and specific, adding a sense of credibility to the proceedings. Thankfully, the film does not resort to shaky cam directorial decisions to develop its lived-in authenticity; Peter Simonite’s photography is visually precise and gives the fishing community a wintry realism that may have viewers shivering in their seats.
But the most impressive aspect of “Fairhaven” is Chris Messina’s performance. Messina, who co-wrote the story with O’Brien, embodies the film’s most fascinating character, the prodigal son Dave. Having abandoned his friends and the town for years, eking out a living on the other side of the country, he seems shallow when first introduced. His subsequent actions and confessions don’t dissuade that first impression either. But in moments alone with his mother, his old flame and with a world that moved on without him, we see flashes of longing and regret — of floating adrift for far too long. Messina delivers consistently because, even as Dave comes to terms with his actions, he only requires his eyes to convey inner turmoil and can load throwaway lines with urgency and pathos.
Unfortunately, Dave functions as the subplot. “Fairhaven” centers on the trio formed by Dave and his high school buddies, but the other two characters are nowhere near as interesting. Divorcé Sam (Rich Sommer from “Mad Men”), who is trying to raise his single daughter and cope with his wife’s abandonment, has no tangible conflict with which to struggle for most of the film’s running time. He only becomes interesting 20 minutes before the end, in a scene so surprising and moving that it cannot be spoiled, except simply to say that it’s the only time Sommer’s character is given any substance.
Jon (O’Brien) is even worse off; undergoing a vague midlife crisis, he constantly talks about his problems but rarely takes the initiative to fix them. Unfortunately, he receives the most screen time. An actor with sufficient presence could make Jon interesting but O’Brien is simply much too wooden in his delivery to put a stamp on the character.
The other aspects that holds “Fairhaven” back are both its lack of purpose and any sort of external action. Structurally, it is shapeless — the film doesn’t build up momentum or rise to a crucial turning point. This is not always a bad technique as many good movies have been made with far less plot, but the film lacks substance — narrative, thematic or otherwise. After the movie ends, it is hard to determine the life lessons the characters have learned, why this story had to be told or what the audience is supposed to take away from it. “Fairhaven” is alternately fascinating and frustrating, with a good film buried underneath layers of filler.
J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.