Writer-actor-director Tom O’Brien is not from Massachusetts, that much is clear. With his perfect diction and skin unweathered by sea spray it’s a little hard (this from someone who grew up on the coast of Maine) to imagine him as the protagonist of Fairhaven, a buddy dramedy that premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
O’Brien plays John, an aimless bachelor still living in his hometown and working on a fishing trawler. We learn early that he wants to become a writer. His mother (Maryann Plunkett) sarcastically refers to him as “John Hemingway” and since we never actually see him writing, aside from a poem which he mumbles drunkenly, it’s hard not to side with her.
Rather than focusing on John and his work the narrative is grounded on his relationship with a couple of best friends from high-school, Sam (Rich Sommer) and Dave (Chris Messina). Still living in Fairhaven and divorced by his unrealistically-pretty wife (Sarah Paulson), who has already remarried, Sam is overwhelmed by his job and young daughter. Dave, on the other hand, moved away to Arizona and came back to attend his estranged father’s funeral. After the three reunite we learn of new possibilities and past betrayals but are left craving for the potential insights into the nature of male relationships–but the hoped-for emotional climaxes never come through. While the seeds of a compelling story are visible below the surface and several of the performances are noteworthy, Fairhaven isn’t always clear enough about where it wants to go; it’s muddled and difficult to get attached to.
John’s conflicts in life revolve around his own discontent toward everything; he’s dating a new-agey girl (Alexie Gillmore) who believes in open relationships, but he isn’t sure how deeply he cares about her. He goes to therapy but doesn’t have much to talk about. Dave, on the other hand, has a lot that he should be talking to a therapist about (paternal abandonment, perpetual bachelorhood, bereavement) but he won’t, of course. Messina’s performance is much more natural and less pretentious than O’Brien’s, and Messina is simply more believable as the prodigal son. Sommer also turns in an excellent performance as the sweet but damaged Sam, though he doesn’t get a lot of screen time.
John, Dave and Sam are on the verge of breaking into a massive fight and let their anger and jealousy out towards each other, but this never quite comes to pass. Instead, we’re made to focus on the aimless and slightly annoying John, while the more compelling stories of Dave and Sam are relegated to the sidelines.
Fairhaven would be much more interesting and satisfying if it focused on either Sam or Dave; as it is, it feels too much like a vanity project to be alluring, and its storyline isn’t satisfying enough, in the end, to live up to its exposition (See the Tribeca Festival site for more details here).